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Family sues marine firm in drowning

MANATEE — Nearly six months after a central Florida man drowned in the swift current underneath a large barge at Longboat Pass, his family filed a lawsuit this week suing a tugboat operator and artificial reef barrier company for obstructing the waterway.

The suit is seeking an unspecified amount of money on behalf of the man’s wife, Christie L. Soto, and the couple’s five surviving children, who range in age from 4 to 12.

Jose H. Medina, 30, of Deltona was visiting Coquina Beach on July 4 when his Jet Ski had mechanical difficulties about 25 yards from the picnic site, according to the lawsuit filed by Medina’s wife.

Medina was pulled by the current up against the barge, which was docked at a construction site between the beach and the pass.

The suit names Fort Pierce-based McCulley Marine Services as well as Tug Champion Inc., which was contracted by McCulley.

John McCulley, CEO for McCulley Marine Services, who is also named in the suit, said Wednesday afternoon he has not been served yet.

“I’m only guilty of two things — singing too loud in church and carrying too big of a Bible,” he said.

McCulley declined further comment, saying his attorney would have to examine the lawsuit’s allegations.

The Casselberry-based law firm, Faddis & Warner, representing Soto, alleges the companies violated federal laws by obstructing the waterway.

“(Medina) was forced forward and downward towards the underside of the Tug Champion and Barge MB 138, ... therefore impaling his personal flotation device upon ... barnacles and or heavy marine growth allowed to proliferate on the underside of the (barge),” according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Manatee County Circuit Court. “Causing (Medina) to be involuntarily snagged to the underside of the (barge) rather than being allowed to drift freely with the channel of water pushing through Longboat Pass, thereby causing his tragic death by drowning.”

The barge was carrying hundreds of tons of old construction material used to enhance the Seven Mile North artificial reef offshore in the gulf. At the time of the crash, a county official told the Herald the location of the barge was the only place to park it.

Eric and Tiffany Faddis, attorneys representing Soto, said the barge was moved the weekend after Medina’s death. They believe Medina’s death was preventable.

“There was a real failure to appropriately evaluate the circumstances before they moved their operations there. Jose Medina would be alive today had they done their job,” said Eric Faddis. “It was an accident waiting to happen. The barge and tug behind should never have been in the position they were in especially where there were thousands of members of the public enjoying the July 4 festivities in the county park.”

Longboat Pass is known for quick currents, and signs mark the area warning the people not to enter the water.

“Jose Medina was wearing a flotation device. He wasn’t swimming. He wasn’t putting himself in harm’s way,” said Tiffany Faddis. “He worked two jobs to support his family. He was a good man, and it’s just a tragedy.”

Soto’s legal counsel argued the boat ramp, which is an “invitation” to enter the water, was fairly close to where the barge and tug were positioned.

“(The operator) who towed the tug boat there knew the current was going to be sweeping things towards his vessel,” said Eric Faddis. “It’s obvious to us he knew there was a danger there.”

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