The Mississippi Supreme Court has reinstated an award of $500,000 to a D’Iberville mother who lost her son and to a second son permanently injured by a drunk boater on the Tchoutacabouffa River.
Circuit Court Judge Lisa Dodson found at the end of a 2014 trial that two officers with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks acted with “reckless disregard” when they allowed boater Donald Bernius to continue operating his vessel after an initial stop on the river, where Bernius was speeding and driving recklessly.
The officers told Bernius to follow them from a curve into the river straightaway so they could examine him and the boat. Bernius was supposed to follow the officers in his boat. Instead, he turned 180 degrees and sped off in the opposite direction. He almost hit another boater before plowing into a boat driven by Christopher Webb, 24, in August 2009.
Webb died when the boat struck him and his brother, Shane Webb, who was 16 at the time. Shane Webb has permanent injuries from being struck in the head, Joe Sam Owen, the family’s attorney. Shane Webb’s medical bills alone stand at about $400,000, Owen said.
Dodson initially awarded $1.4 million in damages to Shane Webb and $100,000 to Kathleen Webb, Christopher Webb's widow. The state Legislature’s cap on damages paid in civil cases reduced the amounts to $466,667 for Shane Webb and $33,333 for Christopher Webb’s beneficiaries.
MDWFP appealed Dodson’s decision that the officers acted recklessly. The Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed her ruling, siding with MDWFP.
The Supreme Court ruled that the lower appeals court took into account only the testimony of the two MDWFP officers — Michael Thrash and Barry Delcambre — without considering other testimony Dodson heard. The Supreme Court said the Court of Appeals could disagree with Dobson’s decision but not overturn it because evidence at trial supported her findings.
She did not find Thrash and Delcambre’s testimony credible when they said that they wanted Bernius to move out of the curve because it was dangerous. Testimony indicated they could have moved to a nearby pier rather than allowing Bernius to continue driving against MDFWP policy
A witness who helped pull Bernius from the water said he was “wasted.” His blood alcohol level two hours after the accident was .25, more than three times the legal driving limit.
The officers, both of whom are still with MDWFP boat and water safety patrol, said they did not realize at first that Bernius was drunk. Thrash stopped the boat, while Delcambre, an MDWFP captain, was at more of a distance in his boat.
The officers, Dodson found, “did not exercise any of the care or consideration they were required to do in their dealings with Bernius.
“They clearly intended that Berius continue to operate his boat without any restrictions from them and without their having made any inquiries as to reckless operation, speeding, physical abilities or use of alcoholic beverages.”
Bernius, who was with a passenger, had 33 beer cans and a beer bottle in his boat. He is serving 20 years in the state prison at Parchman for causing a death while boating under the influence.