The family of famed Canadian filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart has expanded its lawsuit over his January 2017 scuba diving death off Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
The initial suit was filed against Horizon Dive Adventures, the Key Largo dive shop that took Stewart and his crew out to the Queen of Nassau wreck on Jan. 31, 2017. Also named in the initial suit: Add Helium, the Fort Lauderdale company whose principal, Peter Sotis, trained Stewart on using the complex diving equipment. Sotis’ wife Claudia was also sued.
Attorneys for Stewart’s family amended the complaint in late January to include two dive boat crew members, a dive industry trade association that writes certification guidelines for underwater breathing equipment and the manufacturer of the gear Stewart used on the day he died.
Stewart, 37 at the time of his death, surfaced from a dive of more than 220 feet that afternoon before sinking like a rock without anyone on the Horizon Dive Adventures boat immediately noticing he disappeared. He was in the Keys filming the latest installment of his Sharkwater documentary series on the importance of shark conservation.
Stewart and his crew were diving on the wreck to film endangered sawfish. They didn’t find what they were looking for on two previous dives that day, and Stewart, along with Sotis went back down to the deck of the wreck to retrieve a grappling hook.
Both men resurfaced after grabbing the hook; Sotis was first to get on board the Pisces, the Horizon dive boat. As soon as he sat down, however, he became disoriented and passed out. While the crew and Claudia, a physician, tended to him, Stewart slipped beneath the waves.
A massive three-day air and sea search ensued, enlisting the U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy and private boaters and pilots. In the end, Stewart’s body was found on the ocean floor by a remotely operated submarine about 220 feet below the surface, and about 300 feet from where he was last seen.
Stewart’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court in March 2017.
The family amended the complaint on Jan. 28 to include rEvo, the Belgium-based company that makes the rebreathers worn by Stewart and Sotis that day, Pisces crewmen David Wilkerson and Robert Steele, and the International Association of Nitrox Divers, Inc. ( IANTD).
Attorneys for the new defendants could not be immediately reached for comment. rEvo has not been served with the amended complaint.
The new complaint contends that Wilkerson and Steele, as well as Horizon, “supervised, planned, ordered, operated or controlled the subject dive and vessel.”
The Stewarts’ attorneys argued in the original complaint Horizon was responsible for Stewart’s death because crew members took their eyes off him long enough for him to disappear into the ocean depths. Sotis and Add Helium, the lawsuit alleges, did not properly train Stewart on his rebreather before allowing him to undertake three dangerous deep dives using a highly complex piece of dive gear.
The attorney for the Stewart estate, Michael Haggard, said during a press conference at the time that Sotis violated every standard in the industry,” when he trained Stewart.
Unlike conventional scuba tanks where a diver’s carbon dioxide is expelled in bubbles as he or she breathes out, closed circuit rebreathers recirculate the gas in a closed loop. Oxygen is added throughout the dive into the mixture, and the carbon dioxide is removed with chemical “scrubbers.”
The rebreathers are popular with deep divers who want to stay under longer and with photographers who don’t want bubbles showing up in their films and still photos.
However, operating them requires far more training and expertise than is needed with regular scuba tanks. Any wrong move with the mixture can be deadly.
The complaint against rEvo doesn’t state the rebreather was faulty. Rather, it states the company was negligent in Stewart’s death because Sotis and Add Helium served as “agents” of the company in Florida.
Likewise with IANTD. The complaint states it is “a dive certification entity and provided dive training courses and dive training certification to” [Stewart] “via its instructor trainers and instructors, which served as IANTD’s agents.”
Monroe County’s medical examiner concluded in August 2017 that Stewart died from hypoxia, which is lack of oxygen. Since Stewart and Sotis were using the same brand of rebreather with the same gas mixtures, they likely suffered from the same condition, then-Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Beaver wrote in his report.
Both men came up from their dives at rates “that exceeded standards” in place to avoid decompression sickness, or “the bends,” which is caused by nitrogen gas bubbles in the body that form when divers ascend too quickly. But, Beaver ruled out the bends, stating Sotis recovered right away when he was given oxygen, which he said would not help with decompression sickness.
Stewart’s death and recovery had far-reaching repercussions in the Keys.
First, the initial official narrative was that his body was found and recovered by members of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department’s dive team. In reality, the only person associated with the fire department was Rob Bleser, a dive shop owner who had organized numerous high-profile deep water recoveries under the auspices of the fire department.
Bleser operated the remote-controlled sub from the deck of the Pisces. The other men with him that day, and the ones who recovered the body, were the owner of Horizon and two investigators who worked for Horizon’s insurance company.
Beaver was so disturbed by the recovery operation that he threatened to report those involved to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which he never did. He said no one should have handled the body without consulting with his office.
Clashes between Beaver and other county officials over the Stewart recovery and several other publicized cases were cited as reasons Beaver ended up losing his job as medical examiner in May 2017.