Stew Leonard Wrongful Death Suit To Be Heard In State Court

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Stew Leonard Sr., founder of the dairy superstore Stew Leonard's, is being sued for the at-sea death of a former Westport man.
Stew Leonard Sr., founder of the dairy superstore Stew Leonard's, is being sued for the at-sea death of a former Westport man. Photo Credit: File

WESTPORT, Conn. – The wrongful death lawsuit against dairy superstore owner Stew Leonard Sr. for the at-sea death of a former Westport man will be tried at Bridgeport Superior Court despite an attempt to have the case moved to the federal court system.

The case against Leonard was filed last March by Barbara Speranza, whose husband Robert died in August 2011 when he was swept off Leonard’s 70-foot powerboat, Stew’s Special, in the Caribbean after the vessel was reportedly struck by a 12-foot wave.

Not long after the suit was filed, Leonard’s attorneys tried to remove the case from the state court system and into federal court, said Joel Faxon, one of the attorneys representing Barbara Speranza.

“A federal judge ruled that the move was improper and sent it back to state court system,” said Faxon. “This has delayed the case for a whole year, but we’re ready to press this forward.”

A trial date will be set next month during a scheduling hearing, Faxon said. He and Barbara Speranza's other attorney will push to have the case heard this calendar year, he added.

In addition to Leonard Sr., the lawsuit names his son, Thomas Leonard, and the boat’s owner, Carpe Diem Three LLC, as defendants. Leonard Sr. is a member of Carpe Diem. 

Robert Speranza, 73, was with the Leonards and the boat’s captain when it was reportedly hit by a wave that smashed the boat's windshield and almost capsized the vessel. The group was traveling from St. Maarten to St. Thomas, Faxon said.

Although Robert Speranza’s death could be considered accidental, Faxon said Leonard Sr. should not have taken the boat out on the water at the time, as there was a small craft advisory in effect. A small craft advisory means wind/wave conditions can be hazardous for smaller vessels.

“A jury of his peers will have to make the decision as to whether he was a reckless boater that day, traveling from St. Maarten to the U.S. Virgin Islands despite a small craft advisory,” Faxon said.

The Leonards' attorneys at Lennon Murphy Caulfield & Phillips could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Robert and Barbara Speranza lived in St. Maarten, where they owned a business.

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Comments (6)

In Norwalk harbor, 70 ft is not a small boat. Out in the ocean, in bad weather, 70 ft is a very small boat, especially when it is designed primarily for speed and run at high speed in storm conditions.
The argument will be made that the manner in which it was being operated was reckless, considering sea conditions. The undisputed fact is a passenger was washed overboard and killed. Lawyers will claim that fact is proof of reckless operation. Other lawyers will argue it is not and passenger was victim of a single "rogue wave" that came out of nowhere in an otherwise reasonably calm sea. Some settlement will probably be negotiated before a trial.

The claim will be made that Speranza relied on the reasonable caution of Leonard and the boat's captain. Bad weather with high seas was predicted but somebody made the judgement that the extremely fast boat would get where it was going before the bad weather got dangerous. That turned out to be a mistaken judgement and a jury will decide if that bad judgement rose to the level of reckless. It would seem that the boat owner would carry insurance to cover such a liability, but there has been no mention of any insurance. There has also been no mention of Speranza's qualifications to evaluate the risk before boarding the boat.

Extremely sad that he lost his life, but things happen. Just another example of our "Got to blame someone else" society. Also, since when is a 70-foot vessel a "small craft"? That's bigger than some people's apartments.

Was he wearing a life jacket? And, I agree with Happnewyorker, unless he was forced onto the boat, how can you blame the boat owner for his death? It's sad he died, but accidents happen.

And no one forcered Robert Speranza to get on the boat. People take chances all the time. It was Mr. Speranza's decision to get on the boat, no one made him. He wanted to do it. No one really new about the 12-foot wave. It's sad that Mr. Speeranza lost his life. But, to blame and make someone pay for the loss of his life, is WRONG!!