Family files lawsuit in Canadian filmmaker's Florida Keys dive death

The family of Canadian filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday, alleging he would still be alive if not for the negligence of the dive operators who left him in the water without a spotter.  

The Toronto filmmaker died in January off the Florida Keys where he had been shooting Sharkwater: Extinction, a sequel to his 2006 documentary examining the consequences of shark finning on the oceans.

Stewart, 37, began diving in his teens. And he was always a "stickler for safety," his parents, Sandy and Brian Stewart, told CBC News.

Their son wielded his underwater camera like a mirror; something capable of reflecting the ocean's beauty to those who could help him preserve it.

"But he also loved diving and he thought everybody should be able to experience it," his mother said. "The situation that he ran into makes diving seem unsafe — and it's not."

Allegations of negligence

According to the lawsuit, Stewart and dive organizer Peter Sotis both surfaced at the same time with apparent breathing difficulties, but Stewart never made it back on board the dive boat. While others were treating Sotis, Stewart disappeared.

The boat had been turning to pick Stewart up when he vanished in the water, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman told CBC Toronto in February.

The Stewarts say it's considered a "cardinal sin" to pull the dive leader from the water before the person he's guiding.

"You never do that," Sandy Stewart said. "In any kind of a dive situation, they always come out last. And then they missed, there was nobody spotting Rob as he was left in the water."

The Stewarts believe that their son likely lost consciousness after he resurfaced from a third dive after two "really, really deep ones." For the third dive, he and three others reached a depth of nearly 70 metres, his sister said in February.

"If normal safety precautions had been adhered to, he would still be alive today," Stewart's mother said. "They should never have done the third dive. It's not recommended."

Stewart's submerged body was found three days later, about 90 metres from where he was last spotted on the surface, following a massive search involving the U.S. Coast Guard and several other agencies.

Unspecified damages are being sought in the negligence lawsuit filed in Broward County, Fla., Circuit Court. It names as defendants Horizon Dive Adventures of Key Largo, Fla., Add Helium LLC of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and dive organizers Peter and Claudia Sotis, who operate Add Helium.

The lawsuit alleges that the dive company provided Stewart with equipment that doesn't meet U.S. safety regulations and had been rebranded in order to conceal that.

"The objective of the lawsuit is to ensure that people like this don't practise the kind of dives that they put Rob on," his father said.

David Concannon, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Sotises and Add Helium LLC, said his clients dispute the allegations levelled against them in the lawsuit. 

In a statement sent to CBC News, Concannon said that the Sotises were invited to join the dive as guests, but that the charter of the vessel was made directly with Horizon Dive Adventures. 

According to the lawsuit, the dive was taking place at the wreck of the Queen of Nassau, about 9.7 kilometres away from the coast at Islamorada, Fla.

A grappling hook had been placed on the wreck that was attached to a surface buoy to mark the location of the dive. Stewart and Peter Sotis encountered difficulties when they went down a third time to remove the grappling hook.

Concannon, however, said his client disputes this version of events. 

"The dive boat crew did not have the proper equipment to retrieve the anchor so Peter Sotis, a guest, volunteered to perform this crewman's task for the dive boat," the statement said. "Mr. Stewart volunteered to accompany Mr. Sotis and he was told twice that this was not necessary, but Mr. Stewart insisted."

Carrying on their son's mission

Stewart had been planning to continue filming his documentary throughout this spring, something his family and friends in the conservation and arts realms are now doing for him.

Filming resumed this week, with the crew hoping to get a rough cut finished by September, Brian Stewart said.

"We're committed to making sure we get Rob's message out in the best possible way that we can," Stewart said. "But what we're trying to grapple with is once we get through Sharkwater: Extinction, what do we do next? How do we keep the mission moving forward and deliver on his dreams?