Legal battles between the families of two Florida teens missing at sea continue with a wrongful death lawsuit

By Devan Stuart Lesley
July 21, 2017 12:04 PM
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Legal battles between the families of two Florida teens missing at sea, who disappeared nearly two years ago, continue with a wrongful death lawsuit announced Friday at the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

“This lawsuit is about truth, accountability and justice,” attorney Guy Rubin wrote in a prepared statement delivered on behalf of Pamela Cohen, mother of Perry Cohen, who vanished into the waters off Jupiter Inlet with friend Austin Stephanos during a fishing excursion on July 24, 2015. Monday marks two years since the 14-year-old boys’ disappearance and presumed deaths that made headlines worldwide.

The suit also names co-plaintiff John Eric Romano, personal representative of Perry’s estate. Defendants are Austin’s parents, Carly Black and Blu Stephanos, and grandfather, Richard Kuntz. Counts include negligent entrustment, breach of custodian and parental trust, negligent supervision and negligent undertaking of search.

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Credit: Coast Guard

It comes on the heels of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation that found Carly Black, Austin’s mother, showed an “egregious lack of judgement and failure to execute due care” when she allowed the boys to go offshore for a fishing excursion in a “minimally equipped” 19-foot 1978 SeaCraft knowing that the boat lacked basic safety and communications devices. An investigative report released last month added that Black knew that Perry’s parents forbade him to go offshore without an adult; waited more than two hours to notify his parents that the boys were missing; and never notified law enforcement or emergency agencies.

Rather than call for help, Blu Stephanos set out in his own boat to search for the boys – a move that “delayed the official duties of law enforcement and military assistance in the most critical moments of a search and rescue operation when every minute counts,” reads an early copy of the complaint obtained by PEOPLE. “By failing communicate the positions he had searched and where he believed the boys to have gone fishing, Blu Stephanos impeded the search and rescue, which caused the potential rescue of the boys to be greatly diminished.”

The complaint also reveals that before setting out that day, Austin talked with several members of his family about fishing for dolphin – known to inhabit offshore waters – and borrowed money for fuel from Kuntz.

Michael Pike, of Pike and Lustig in West Palm Beach and attorney for Austin’s father Blu said he was disappointed and refuted the allegations made by Mr. Rubin, saying his client didn’t know the boys were going out fishing on that tragic day and that his son was in the custody of his mother at the time, with whom Blu has been divorced from for many years.

“In fact, Blu was scheduled to have Austin for the weekend before tragedy struck,” Pike said. “Blu Stephanos was not negligent in any manner, and was not the owner of the vessel. Despite Mr. Rubin’s comments, Blu Stephanos was out searching for the boys by boat and by helicopter, an area spanning from Florida to Georgia.”

Despite investigators’ findings of probable cause that Black violated Florida’s child neglect and abuse statutes and that her actions “had the effect of culminating in the disappearance of both boys,” Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos declined to file criminal charges, saying that the probe turned up insufficient proof to satisfy statutory language and applicable case law relating to the state’s child neglect statute. That’s because boating on the open seas is not an “inherently dangerous activity,” which prosecutors consider a critical component in levying criminal charges of child neglect.

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Pamela Cohen and Perry Cohen
| Credit: Steven Martine Photography/Courtesy Cohen Family

“Because the state attorney declined to pursue a criminal case, a civil action is now Pamela Cohen’s only course,” Rubin says. “A civil action carries with it the opportunity to find the truth and let the sword of justice swing without favor, sympathy or prejudice. That is the American way.”

On Monday, Black released a statement in response to the lawsuit via her attorney George Harris.

“Now, everyone will be forced to relive this horrible nightmare on a daily basis in order to defend this lawsuit and prepare for trial,” the statement reads. “This loss was a tragedy for both families, and this course of protracted litigation chosen by the Cohen family will not bring the boys back”Harris said evidence presented in court will contradict claims made during Cohen’s Friday press conference and in the complaint.

A heartbreak from the beginning, the loss of Perry and Austin has been exacerbated by legal battles that have deeply divided their families, their South Florida community and the public at large. In April 2016, Cohen filed suit against Black, ex-husband Blu Stephanos and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure a thorough forensics examination of the recovered boat and preservation of potential evidence contained in Austin’s iPhone. In December 2016, Black also took to the courts, filing a federal maritime action to exonerate her from liability and to limit total losses in the case – including the value of the boys’ lives – to $500.

Should a jury award damages in this newest case, Rubin says the full award will be donated to charity.

Meanwhile, Nick Korniloff, Cohen’s husband and Perry’s stepfather, has stern words for those critical of the couple’s decision to seek legal recourse for their son’s loss.

“Until you feel the burn of the sun on your back every second and every minute your son is missing or have to be the one to tell your wife that her son is not clinging to the boat the [United States Coast Guard] found and have to watch her scrub her own mouth for DNA to have on file for the unimaginable, do not cast your opinion or your insensitivity on this situation,” Korniloff says. “This was an avoidable loss.”