Stranded at Sea With a Dead Cellphone
SAN DIEGO (CN) - A family stranded on a sailboat 1,000 miles off the coast of Mexico claims in court that if their satellite phone company had kept their paid-up phone in service they could have avoided alerting emergency rescue and saved their sailboat.
Charlotte Kaufman sued Whenever Communications dba SatellitePhoneStore.com on Monday in Superior Court. Her negligence complaint claims that the company knows that most of its customers use the satellite phones for emergencies, and stated publicly after the family was rescued that it is illegal to deactivate the phones, though that is what it did.
"We have friends who are crossing the ocean right now with their families and we want to make sure this never happens to them or anyone else," Charlotte Kaufman told U-T San Diego after she filed suit on Monday.
Kaufman says she was stranded after she embarked on a voyage with her husband Eric Kaufman and two young daughters, Lyra and Cora, then 1 and 3, from Nayarit, Mexico on March 20, 2013.
An experienced seafarer who raised both her daughters on the family sailboat "Rebel Heart," Kaufman says her husband captained the vessel for a planned 3,000 nautical mile trip to Hiva Oa, Marquesas, French Polynesia.
Kaufman says the family estimated that it would take them three to six weeks to arrive at their destination, and that once they sailed toward the equator into the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, winds would prevent them from sailing back to the Pacific Coast.
Kaufman says Lyra had been sick during their stay in Mexico but a doctor had given the family the all-clear to take her on the voyage. The parents prepared for a medical emergency with a locker full of medication, and installed an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) should they need "immediate, emergency rescue at sea."
"However, use of the EPIRB was last resort option for the Kaufmans because they knew that once it was activated, emergency rescue forces would be dispatched and they would have to scuttle the sailboat they had called home for seven years," the lawsuit states.
Kaufman says the family took with them a satellite phone that Eric had bought from Whenever at a store in Point Lorna months before they set sail. Just under two weeks before they began their around-the-world trip, Whenever charged a monthly fee of $240 from the Kaufman's account.
"Whenever's knowledge that persons (signatories and non-signatories) using their phones would be in distant and remote locations, and therefore dependent upon the phones not being wrongfully deactivated, was confirmed by Whenever, in a statement to the press after the Kaufmans were rescued at sea, in which they denied having deactivated the Eric's SIM card: 'We would never do that. These phones are used for emergency purposes by 80 percent of our customers. Legally, I could not do that,'" the 6-page lawsuit states.
But Kaufman says Whenever deactivated the SIM card at a time when Lyra had a fever and was vomiting. Kaufman says that after her baby daughter failed to respond to antibiotics, Eric Kaufman phoned the Coast Guard, which told him that a doctor would call back.
"That call was never returned because Whenever deactivated the SIM card, leaving the phone operable only to the extent it could display a 'SIM card error' on the screen. That same day, April 3, 2014, Whenever again charged the debit card on file," the lawsuit states.
The boat had "slammed onto its side and then righted itself," U-T San Diego reported, and at the time of the emergency was taking on 60 to 70 gallons of water each day. The Kaufmans, however, believed that on-board pumps could cope with the problem and allow them to continue their journey.
But Kaufman says the family was left with no choice but to activate the beacon. Four California National Guardsmen were parachuted into the sea and used a lightweight inflatable boat to rescue the family, treating Lyra with antibiotics from the Kaufman's own supplies. When the Navy ship USS Vandegrift arrived to assist the Kaufmans three days later, Lyra's condition was beginning to improve, according to the complaint.
"(T)elephone communication with the Coast Guard physician would have allowed the Kaufmans to successfully treat Lyra, and not have activate the EPIRB," the complaint states. "Eric made the decision that Charlotte and the two children would return to San Diego on the USS Vandegrift. Since Eric could not continue the voyage alone, he was forced to scuttle the Rebel Heart, and returned with his family to San Diego."
Kaufman told U-T San Diego: "People think we lost our boat, but we lost our home. We lost everything other than the bags we could carry."
The lawsuit names nominal defendants Eric Kaufman, California and the United States as "indispensable" parties.
Kaufman seeks compensatory, general, special, and exemplary damages and costs.
She is represented by Daniel Gilleon.