Engineer wins $1.68 million in scuba diving case
Daniel Carlock, a Santa Monica aerospace engineer, prayed to God not to let him die after he was abandoned floating in the ocean 12 miles off Long Beach by leaders of a scuba diving excursion. After nearly five hours, surrounded by thick fog, “I had this feeling my spirit was getting ready to vacate my body,” he recalled.
On Friday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury awarded Carlock $1.68 million in damages in his five-year legal battle against Venice-based Ocean Adventures Dive Co. and Long Beach-based Sundiver Charters.
The jury heard testimony that Carlock, who was 45 at the time of the 2004 incident, had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and developed skin cancer from exposure.
“It has been an ordeal,” he said as he celebrated at a Newport Beach restaurant with his wife, Anne. “But I wanted to seek changes in the scuba industry. Others will benefit.”
The Sundiver, carrying 20 scuba divers, was staging a dive near the oil rig Eureka when Carlock surfaced 400 feet from the vessel after having trouble equalizing the pressure in his ears.
He said he tried to swim back to the boat but got cramps in his legs. He blew on his safety whistle and waved a yellow inflatable diving sausage, but the others on the vessel did not see him and no one noticed he was gone.
Despite his absence, a dive master for Ocean Adventures marked him on the dive roster as present on the boat.
Then, to escape strong currents, the boat moved to a second dive site seven miles away. Once the vessel was there, Carlock was again marked on the roster as having taken a second dive — although by then he was bobbing alone in the ocean miles away.
It wasn’t until more than three hours after Carlock had been left behind at the first site that the crew realized he was missing and the Sundiver’s captain radioed the Coast Guard. Rescue workers rushed to the second dive site.
Meanwhile, south of the first dive site, Carlock was drifting in strong currents toward Newport Beach with “the feeling that I was going to die.”
The Coast Guard never did find Carlock. He was rescued seven miles off Newport Beach by the Argus, a tall ship carrying a group of Boy Scouts. The ship had changed course to avoid colliding with a freighter; otherwise it would not have been in sight of Carlock.
He was spotted by a 15-year-old Scout who happened to be looking through binoculars. At first, the Scout thought he was seeing a piece of trash in the distance.
After a 23-day trial and 21/2 days of deliberations, the jury assessed total damages in the negligence suit at $2 million. But it reduced Carlock’s award on the grounds that he was partly responsible because he had been told to surface closer to the boat.
“Dan has changed the industry’s safety standards so that other divers won’t be left out in the ocean and endure this kind of terror,” said Carlock’s attorney, Scott Koepke.
He said industry standards had previously been “amorphous” on how to count divers. “Now they have to have visual verification and redundancy. And the dive boat captains, not just the dive masters, are responsible for the count.”
A man answering the telephone at Ocean Adventures said owner Stephen Ladd was unreachable because he was diving off Thailand. Sundiver Charters did not respond to messages.
Lawyers for the companies had contended that by participating in the dive, Carlock had assumed certain risks, thereby waiving his right to hold operators responsible. But a judge refused to dismiss the case, saying that being abandoned at sea is not a risk inherent in the sport.
Stephen Hewitt, an attorney for Ocean Adventures, acknowledged that “everyone involved had some obligation to look for and account for Mr. Carlock.”
However, he added, he had hoped the jury would find Carlock 50% responsible for the incident. “We have a buddy rule. If you can’t find your buddy, you are supposed to surface, but he continued to dive for 15 minutes by himself,” Hewitt said. In the trial, he said, “there was a dispute” as to the identity of Carlock’s buddy, with one of the dive masters denying it was he.
“We question the amount of effort Mr. Carlock made to swim back to the boat,” he said. “He chose to let the current take him away.”
Hewitt disagreed with the jury’s decision to include future pain and suffering as part of the $1.68-million award. “He is married. He has a life and seems to be OK.” .
Carlock’s ordeal attracted international attention at the time. He appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” among others.