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BLOCK ISLAND

Passengers sue Ballard’s Beach Resort and Block Island ferry company, one year after chaotic concert brawls

New Shoreham Police outside of Ballard's Beach Resort, a popular bar destination for day trippers located near the ferry docks on Block Island, R.I., on August 27, 2022.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — A year after a problematic reggae music festival, a group of passengers who were on the Block Island Ferry that night when a brawl broke out have filed a federal lawsuit alleging emotional and psychological harm after being stuck on the ferry for nearly an hour.

The suit was filed on Tuesday, exactly one year since the incident that began at Ballard’s Beach Resort made headlines across the country. Both Ballard’s Beach Resort and Interstate Navigation, which owns the Block Island Ferry, are named as defendants, along with the eight people who were arrested and were involved in the altercations.

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On Aug. 8, 2022, Ballard’s Beach Resort hosted a free reggae festival where crowds had overwhelmed the resort and at least one brawl broke out on the beach club’s property. More fights allegedly took place on the docks while attendees waited in line for hours for an unscheduled, late-night ferry back to the mainland.

When the last ferry departed the dock that night, police dispatch received several phone calls from people on the ferry that someone had a gun, and a large fight broke out on the top deck. “Multiple people were stabbed,” the lawsuit alleges.

The plaintiffs, who were all from New England, detailed how they were “caught in the middle of the various fights” and that some had “excessive blood” spilled all over them. Nearby passengers, they allege in court documents, were hanging from the rafters of the ferry, kicking people, throwing blunt objects, and caused severe injuries to other passengers. One unnamed child, whose aunt is one of the plaintiffs, asked if “they were going to die.”

Videos shared with The Boston Globe at the time showed the US Coast Guard approaching the ferry from behind in open water, and guardsmen quickly boarding the boat and drawing their weapons. Additional law enforcement agencies assisted the Coast Guard when the ferry entered the Port of Galilee in Narragansett, including the Rhode Island State Police, Narragansett Police, and South Kingstown Police. Once on shore, officers brought police dogs on board and eight people were arrested.

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“At all relevant times, at Ballard’s, in the line for the ferry, and on the ferry, the plaintiffs were caught in the middle of the various fights,” the complaint said.

The ferry these plaintiffs were on that night was not scheduled, but was deemed necessary by police when a “large influx” of people were exiting Ballard’s. Interstate Navigation was short-staffed, and did not have the necessary crew and security to properly staff the ferry and deal with the crowds, the suit alleges. One unnamed ferry staffer allegedly told one of the plaintiffs that they were “19-year-old kids making $14 per hour” and were “just as scared as the passengers.”

Police officers, who spent hours breaking up altercations on the docks, had boarded the ferry to break up fights that carried over onto the ferry, but left without making any arrests or removing any passengers, the suit said. The plaintiffs claim that some of them had attempted to exit the ferry immediately after boarding because of the chaos on board, but the police prevented them from doing so.

The suit claims Interstate Navigation was negligent, and failed to address unruly passengers, provide adequate security, and keep passengers safe.

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Interstate Navigation’s General Counsel Michael McElroy told the Globe the company would not comment on pending litigation.

The suit was filed by nine individuals from New England: Novel Ferguson of Pawtucket, R.I.; Hennessey Shaw of Rockland, Mass.; Patrick Stewart of Lakeville, Mass; Hai Cao of Lakeville, Mass.; Melissa Bouchard of Coventry, R.I.; Dakota Payne of Coventry, R.I.; Pamela Costello of Warwick, R.I.; Bryan Sforza of Rockland, Mass.; and Claudio Castellanos of Pawtucket, R.I.

Ballard’s was opened on Water Street as a family-friendly restaurant in 1952 by the late Paul Filippi Sr. The resort is currently owned by Steven Filippi, a well-connected local businessman whose estranged brother, Blake Filippi, until recently served as House Minority Leader and the Republican state congressman for the district.

Steven Filippi declined to comment.

Steven Filippi (far left) is the owner of Ballard's Beach Resort on Block Island.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

The resort, located steps from where vacationers disembark from the Block Island Ferry, has long been known as a place to party. The entertainment venue offers a hotel, tiki bars, cabanas, beer pong tables, a private beach adjacent to the public one, and oversized cocktails served in whole pineapples. In the past, the resort has often hosted music festivals and concerts that drew large crowds.

As Ballard’s grew from a family restaurant to popular entertainment hub, it gained a reputation for serving alcohol to minors and ignoring crude behavior and binge drinking.

The New Shoreham Town Council had suspended Ballard’s liquor and entertainment licenses for two weeks after the incidents in August 2022. But 12 hours later, Filippi filed an appeal with the state, which he later won, and was allowed to serve alcohol again.

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Filippi, in an exclusive interview with The Boston Globe earlier this summer, said the events of last summer were a “wakeup call.”

“I think we definitely could have done more,” Filippi said. “We could have had more security. There’s no excuses here. I still have no idea how that happened. I still think about that at night.”

Filippi said he was focused on rebranding Ballard’s as a family-oriented resort again, instead of an alcohol-fueled party atmosphere. He hired Timothy Lee, a retired police chief in Dartmouth, Mass., and former Providence police captain, as Ballard’s new head of security. In an agreement with the town council that was signed over the winter, Filippi was banned from hosting music festivals, and is limited to one band playing outdoors at a time, and no more than two acts in a single day.

But Filippi also faces issues with coastal regulators. This summer, tiki bars, canopies, and other temporary structures are back out on the beach, despite state regulators’ insistence that he lacks permission for them. Last week, after months of scrutinizing the resort, state regulators hit Ballard’s with five $10,000 fines in an ongoing battle over allegedly unauthorized tiki bars, fences, and other amenities on the beach. A fine of $1,000 can be assessed for every day the violations continue. Filippi has repeatedly declined to comment on the record over the matter.

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In the suit filed this week, the plaintiffs claim Ballard’s had breached local ordinances in its operations that rose to the level of negligence. They claimed the resort failed to properly staff the bar, allowed intoxicated people into the facility, lacked sufficient security, failed to train staff, failed to properly check IDs or weapons, and overserved alcohol to patrons, among several other issues. There were no complaints of IDs or overserving by police at the time.

This story has been updated with information from Interstate Navigation’s attorney.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.