BALLSTON SPA — The parents of a 20-year-old man who died in a July 4 boating accident on Saratoga Lake have sued three people, including the intoxicated operator of the pontoon boat their son was a passenger on.
Attorney Stephen Coffey of Albany filed the lawsuit on behalf of Paul Gerber and Ellen Kieran-Gerber, parents of 20-year-old Ian Gerber, a 2019 graduate of Ballston Spa High School, who died in the accident.
Paul Gerber is the administrator of his son’s estate.
The named defendants were Blake Heflin of Malta, who was behind the wheel of the boat in which Gerber was a passenger, Heflin’s father, William Heflin of Ballston Spa, who owns the pontoon boat, and Kevin Sawyer of Stillwater, who operated a second cabin motorboat that also struck Gerber.
Blake Heflin admitted to prosecutors last month that he was drunk at the time. However, the defendant avoided jail time under a plea deal with the county prosecutor who said she was hamstrung by a lack of cooperation from witnesses.
The lawsuit was filed Jan. 14 in state Supreme Court in Saratoga County. It demands “a substantial sum of money” while blaming the younger Heflin of negligently and carelessly operating the boat while intoxicated.
The lawsuit said Heflin was speeding and caused the collision that killed Gerber by failing to maintain and control the boat, and not stopping it before colliding with Gerber.
According to the lawsuit, Heflin was headed south on Sandy Bay on Saratoga Lake in Malta at about 7 p.m. when Gerber jumped out of the boat and into the lake.
Heflin caused the collision when he turned the boat to the port side to retrieve Gerber, the complaint read.
Sawyer, who was also headed south, was speeding and failed to maintain a vigilant lookout, nor did he yield to avoid colliding with Gerber after Heflin’s boat struck him, the lawsuit continues.
The disposition of Heflin’s case just before Christmas resulted in outrage from many people on social media.
Last month, Heflin admitted to prosecutors he was drunk when the propeller of his pontoon boat struck Gerber after he had jumped into Saratoga Lake.
Heflin pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of assault in the third degree and boating while intoxicated before Judge James A. Murphy III. In a statement, the DA said the parents of those involved in the accident could have intervened.
Heflin had originally been charged in September with criminally negligent homicide, a felony, after more than two months of investigation.
Saratoga County District Attorney Karen A. Heggen said an investigation by the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office revealed Heflin, several underage individuals and a number of adults hosted an underage drinking party in the area of Sandy Bay that day.
Blake Heflin and several individuals left that area on Heflin’s pontoon boat, traveling south on Saratoga Lake toward Brown‘s Beach.
Witnesses observed passengers on the pontoon boat jumping off the side of the boat while the boat was moving.
It was determined that Gerber later jumped off the starboard side of Heflin’s pontoon boat as it was moving.
Heflin turned the pontoon boat away from Gerber while he was in the water, exposing Gerber to the boat‘s propeller, and Gerber sustained injuries that ultimately caused his death.
Heflin was interviewed by police immediately after the accident, and it was determined that he was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
Five additional passengers on the pontoon boat – acquaintances of both Heflin and Gerber – provided statements to police immediately after the incident. All of the passengers on the pontoon boat claimed that the pontoon boat was not involved.
The sheriff‘s office sought assistance from several boating experts, the New York State Police Forensic Identification Unit, a forensic pathologist and an outside biomechanical expert. As a result of these outside sources and physical and scientific evidence collected from the two boats, the sheriff‘s office determined that the defendant’s pontoon boat struck Gerber while he was in the water, causing traumatic injuries.
The evidence revealed that Gerber had also been struck by the second boat while already incapacitated in the water.
The DA said Sawyer and his passenger were interviewed by police and cooperated with the investigation.
Later in the investigation, the passengers from the pontoon boat provided conflicting information about what had occurred which materially differed from the prior sworn statements they gave to police. Ultimately, the only eyewitnesses to what occurred refused to cooperate with the investigation, according to the DA, who called the accident avoidable had Heflin and those around him made better choices that day.
Heflin will be sentenced March 23. He is expected to be sentenced to a three-year term of probation and his boat operating privileges will be revoked for at least a year, Heggen said.
The disposition of Heflin’s case, which occurred just before Christmas, led to many people on social media expressing their outrage.
Gerber’s uncle, Edward Lee of Raleigh, North Carolina, reached out to the Daily Gazette after the criminal disposition, accusing Heggen of failing to organize a case.
“Guilty here are the following; Parents of Heflin whom knowingly provided alcohol to underage kids and then allowed them to rage on the lake with reckless abandon. Parents of the ‘witnesses’ who changed the narrative to protect their own. Obviously, the boat operator, Heflin. To a lesser extent, the sheriff’s department for not completing a thorough investigation.”
Lee said in the statement that the disposition was a “mere slap on the hand.”
“Rather than change the culture of letting the parents of entitled upper middle class underaged adults commit felonies while intoxicated, the DA has chosen to let it go,” he said.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.