PROVIDENCE — Nathan Carman thought his boat was in good working order when he left Point Judith, R.I., on a fishing trip three years ago, but something “fairly catastrophic” caused it to sink rapidly, causing his mother’s death, Carman’s lawyer said Wednesday.
“Mr. Carman would never go out there with his mom in the middle of nowhere if he felt the boat was going to sink,” Carman’s lawyer, David F. Anderson, said during closing arguments Wednesday in a civil insurance trial over Carman’s efforts to collect $85,000 for the loss of the vessel. “Something let go in that boat.”
In a 90-minute statement that capped the eight-day federal trial, Anderson argued that the 31-foot Chicken Pox was in poor condition when Carman bought it nine months before it sank, its problems masked by a good paint job and bonding.
But a lawyer for two insurers countered that Carman, a Vermont man under investigation for the deaths of his mother and grandfather, made suspicious modifications to the boat before heading out to sea in September 2016 with his mother, Linda, and later lied to investigators about where it sank. Despite a massive Coast Guard search, neither the boat nor Linda Carman’s remains have been recovered.
David J. Farrell Jr. urged US District Judge John J. McConnell Jr. “to look at Mr. Carman’s deep-rooted credibility problems, I’ll say lies.” Carman’s claim the boat sank so suddenly he heard “not even one word, let alone a scream” from his mother was unbelievable, he said. “How can that be unless she’s in a coma, already dead, or not on board?” he asked.
McConnell Jr. said he would issue a written ruling in a couple of weeks. The insurers, National Liability & Fire Insurance Co. and Boat Owners Association of the United States, sued Carman, alleging that he voided his coverage by making the modifications.
Carman, 25, dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt, and blue-and-gray striped tie, remained expressionless throughout the closing arguments.
During his two days of testimony, Carman said he and his mother were fishing in an area known as Block Canyon off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., when the engine made a strange noise and water began to fill the bilge. He said he told his mother to pull in their fishing lines so they didn’t get tangled, but didn’t tell her they were in imminent danger as he moved safety gear onto the bow.
“She was more kind of the problem than the solution,” Carman testified. “If I told her there was water in the bilge, she was going to make things worse. So better to give her a task to perform that was helpful.”
Carman said the boat sank quickly beneath his feet and he cried out for his mother, who was a strong swimmer, but he didn’t see or hear her. He said he managed to make it to a life raft, which had automatically deployed, with a bag of dry clothes and enough food for weeks. A week later he was rescued by a passing freighter about 115 miles off Martha’s Vineyard.
Lawyers for the insurers asked Carman why he didn’t trigger an emergency beacon that would have alerted the Coast Guard and broadcast his location. Carman said he had “a strong aversion to pressing a button that is going to result in a helicopter coming out” and thought he could fix the boat himself.
In court filings, the insurers allege Carman sabotaged the boat to kill his mother and had previously killed his grandfather in a plot to collect a multimillion-dollar inheritance.
John Chakalos, an 87-year-old real estate developer, was shot to death in his Windsor, Conn., home in December 2013. He left a $44 million estate to his four daughters, including Carman’s mother. Police identified Carman in court filings as a suspect in his grandfather’s killing, but he has not been criminally charged in either the death of his grandfather or his mother.
The judge denied the insurers’ request to present evidence related to Chakalos’ slaying at the insurance trial. As a result, the trial focused narrowly on whether Carman’s insurance policy was voided because he made dangerous alterations to his boat. Several marine experts testified that Carman made the vessel unseaworthy when he removed trim tabs from the rear of the boat, creating four holes just above the water line that he sealed with putty. “The fact is, he had holes in his boat and he poorly and shoddily repaired them,” Farrell said Wednesday.
Carman said he removed the trim tabs, installed by the boat’s previous owner to improve its performance, because he thought they were causing the vessel to drag.
Two witnesses also challenged Carman’s claim that his boat sank in Block Canyon and he drifted in a life raft for a week. One specialist said Carman would have been “profoundly hypothermic if not dead” after a week in the life raft, yet he showed no such symptoms when he was rescued.
Anderson said Carman had told the truth about what happened but may have been mistaken about where he sank because he was relying on an electronic chart to plot his course. He said Carman was not hypothermic because he had dry clothes and was not wet and cold while drifting in the raft.
“This gentleman has been telling the truth from day one in this case,” Anderson said.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.