The family of a former Lexington, Kentucky, mayor who died after an airboat owned by New Orleans landfill owner Fred Heebe capsized off the Plaquemines Parish coast last fall is seeking damages from Heebe in a wrongful-death lawsuit.
Heebe wasn’t there Oct. 15 when his 16-foot 1997 Alumitech Airboat rolled over in the vicinity of Dixon Bay and ex-Lexington Mayor Harrison Foster Pettit Sr. cut his leg.
But Pettit’s relatives allege he died from an infection he contracted after wounding his leg, and they filed a lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court accusing Heebe and the airboat’s captain of failing to provide Pettit reasonable care.
Heebe filed papers Monday in federal court seeking to limit his liability in the case, if not clear him of wrongdoing.
Heebe’s attorneys could not be reached for comment Tuesday. An attorney representing Pettit’s family declined to discuss the case.
According to court papers, Pettit’s grandchildren live in Louisiana, and he was in the state to attend a local school’s Grandparents Day when he decided to go fishing in Dixon Bay with two other men: Heebe’s stepfather, Albert Ward, who with Heebe co-owns the River Birch landfill in Waggaman, the subject of a high-profile but eventually aborted federal corruption investigation, and Paul Martin, who asked Heebe if the group could use his airboat.
Heebe agreed to let Martin, Ward and Pettit — Lexington’s mayor from 1972 to 1978 — use the boat. A boat captain employed by Heebe, Thomas Rhodes, took the men out from Venice. On the way back, the vessel’s drainage plug came out, and it “gently” overturned in shallow water, court documents said.
Rhodes’ son sent the Coast Guard to rescue the men when they did not return to Venice. While they waited hours for the Coast Guard, the stranded men took turns sitting on the capsized boat’s hull.
At one point, while climbing onto the hull, Pettit sliced his leg on the cage covering the airboat’s fan blades. Pettit’s relatives allege his wound became infected with the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, which is common in saltwater in October. A bleach solution would have sterilized the wound, but Heebe’s boat had none, Pettit’s relatives allege.
Heebe also didn’t equip his boat with appropriate distress signals or signaling devices that could have resulted in a quicker rescue, Pettit’s relatives allege.
The plaintiffs said Pettit died from his infection on Nov. 22 after spending more than four weeks in a hospital, receiving more than $2.5 million in medical care and experiencing the failure of multiple organs as well as septic shock. He was 84.
Pettit’s widow and his three grown sons filed their wrongful-death suit last month against Rhodes, Heebe and the company insuring the boat, Markel. They argued the venue was proper under general maritime law.
Markel on July 29 asked for the case to be moved from the state court system to the federal one. That request is pending.
Heebe, meanwhile, wholly denies responsibility for Pettit’s death.
“Any losses, damages, injuries or death ... were not caused ... by the fault, negligence, lack of due diligence or want of due care on the part of ... Heebe, the airboat or any persons in charge of (it),” Heebe’s filing said in part.