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August 2007    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Yongala Victim’s Husband Denies Murder, Sues Insurer

from the August, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The husband of scuba diving victim Tina Watson, who drowned at the Australian wreck Yongala during her honeymoon in 2003, is locked in a courtroom battle that could see him receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from her death. Gabe Watson, 30, from Hoover, Alabama, is fighting for a travel insurance payout boosted by compensation for “mental anguish” suffered after witnessing his wife’s death. But the Australian police consider him a murder suspect.

Watson denied killing his wife, saying it was a tragic accident and she was swept away from him by strong currents. In a deposition for his insurance lawsuit, he testified that he and Tina were taken out in a dinghy with four other people for the first dive of their week-long trip on Mike Ball’s Spoil Sport.The couple descended on their own, following a permanent anchor rope. They were only allowed 55 feet down because Tina was still a beginner. They had just started their drift toward the wreck when Tina indicated she wanted to go back to the rope.

Watson said he grabbed at his wife’s BC, motioning for her to inflate it, but she indicated it wasn’t working. He started dragging her by her vest “because she obviously couldn’t swim against the current.” He said his mask and regulator got knocked off so he had to let go. “By the time I got [them]….she was five or 10 feet below me, sinking down toward the bottom. When I realized I wasn’t going to catch her, I hauled to the surface for help.” A guide found her on the bottom with mask and regulator still on.

Watson says he doesn’t know what caused his wife to react the way she did but that Mike Ball’s company should take responsibility for the death. “I believe they started with a too-difficult dive, especially for someone that was a beginner diver.” However, e-mails between Watson and Mike Ball show that when he was planning the trip in spring of 2003, the Yongala wreck was high on his agenda for his honeymoon trip, but corporate representative Shelley McLaughlin told him the dive might be unsuitable for his wife. “Should we visit the Yongala wreck, Tina may need to sit out the first/ second dive if she has not done enough dives to qualify her,” she wrote.

Watson is suing the Birmingham, Alabama, travel agency that arranged the trip and his travel insurers, Old Republic Insurance and Travelex Insurance Services. He contacted the latter five days after his wife’s death, but it refused to make a payout because its policy’s fine print said diving losses were not covered. Watson argued that his travel agent had told him the $480 policy would cover diving for his $10,000 trip.

The insurers are trying to delay the case while police investigations continue, arguing they aren’t required to pay policyholders suspected of a crime. Last April, two Queensland detectives, in conjunction with the FBI, made a surprise raid on Watson’s home in Hoover, Alabama, seizing his computer and other material. Watson is officially referred to as a witness but an Australian police sergeant e-mailed the insurance companies that he is suspected in his wife’s death. “It is beyond doubt that the plaintiff is a suspect in – and implicated by – the investigation into the death of the insured,” the insurers say in documents filed last December.

The police investigation is supposed to be wrapping up this summer, when the case is also set for trial in Alabama’s Jefferson County. Watson is seeking damages for accidental death, trip interruption, medical expenses, phone calls, taxi fares, fees for extra credit card statements, and compensation for mental and emotional anguish aggravated by the insurer’s refusal to pay him. He is also seeking punitive damages relating to the insurers’ failure to disclose that the policy did not cover scuba diving accidents and failure to pay out on the policy.

Watson’s lawyers say that the criminal investigation has no impact on the insurance claim. Alabama is one of the most litigious states in the country and if Watson is successful, jurors could grant him a multimillion-dollar payout.

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