Kayak owner may face lawsuit over groom’s death

Posted April 08, 2012, at 2:22 p.m.
Last modified April 08, 2012, at 4:09 p.m.

HANCOCK, Maine — If someone dies using someone else’s property, is the property owner to blame?

A California woman who owns a property at Hancock Point is hoping to have that questioned answered before she might face a lawsuit over the death of a Massachusetts man who rented her cabin last summer.

Eric Hogan, 28, of Webster, Mass., was on his honeymoon last June when he died after paddling a kayak owned by Judith L. Bell of Aromas, Calif., out into Frenchman Bay.

Hogan and his new wife, Sarah Kellogg Hogan, had been married for three weeks and a day when he stood on solid ground for the last time. The young couple had gotten engaged while visiting Acadia National Park in August 2009. After getting married in Massachusetts on May 28, 2011, the bride and groom traveled back to Hancock County to stay in Bell’s rental cabin at Hancock Point, overlooking Sorrento Harbor to the east.

On Sunday, June 19, the day the newlyweds planned to return home, Eric got up early and donned shorts and a life jacket but no shirt and paddled out into Frenchman Bay. Hours later, after wind gusts of 30 mph and water temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees prevented him from returning to shore, the 28-year-old doctoral student was found dead, floating in the water off the Bar Harbor village of Hulls Cove.

Despite wearing a life preserver, Hogan was not well prepared for the conditions, officials have said. The style of kayak he was using was a sit-on-top model that did not have a cockpit. Hogan was not sheltered from the elements or secured to the vessel with straps or any other type of device, according to Maine Marine Patrol.

On March 28 of this year, Bell filed a petition in federal court in Bangor seeking to be exonerated or limited from liability in Hogan’s death. In court filings, Bell indicates she purchased the vessel, manufactured by Ocean Kayak, in May 2009 for $296.61.

In the petition, Bell indicates that she has not yet been sued but has received a notice of claim that has alerted her to a potential wrongful death lawsuit.

Bell’s attorney, William Welte of Camden, said this past week that his client filed the petition in federal court after receiving the notice of claim. He said receiving a notice of claim is not a guarantee that a lawsuit or actual claim will be filed.

“The hope is there will be be no claim,” Welte said.

Attempts this past week to contact Hogan’s widow and parents were unsuccessful. Voice mail messages left for Sarah Hogan were not returned.

Jennifer Wriggins, a law professor at University of Maine School of Law in Portland, said Friday that it is difficult to predict what kind of effect the outcome of such a case could have on the practice by some Maine property owners of renting out cottages as vacation homes.

“At this early stage, there’s not a lot that can be said [about the legal implication],” Wriggins said.

Generally speaking, such property owners do have some responsibilities but are not expected to be responsible for every possible mishap, she said.

“They generally owe a duty to exercise reasonable care” in maintaining the safety of their properties, Wriggins said. “People also generally have a duty to exercise reasonable care for their own safety.”

Hogan’s death, and the deaths of two other tourists who died while kayaking in Hancock County last summer, spurred public concern about safety precautions and what sort of responsibility business owners who rent out kayaks should have.

Though Hogan was wearing a life preserver, the issue of whether canoers and kayakers should be required to wear flotation devices, rather than just have them in the boat, also has been raised. A bill that would require such boaters to wear life preservers while out on the water has been introduced to the Legislature and could come up for consideration next year.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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