Justice system's handling of O'Leary boat crash case a 'slap in the face' for victims' families

Flurry of lawsuits stemming from fatal boat crash in August 2019 on an Ontario lake includes claim by entrepreneur and TV personality Kevin O'Leary against owner and operator of other boat involved.

Kevin O’Leary files claim for more than $3M in fatal boat crash in 2019

Paula Brito, left, says she's still waiting for answers about the night her sister, Suzana, right, died. Brito and her parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kevin and Linda O'Leary seeking $2 million in damages following a boat crash in August 2019 on an Ontario lake. (Submitted by Paula Brito)

The sister of a woman killed in a boat crash involving entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary and his wife is frustrated with the justice system and says that one year later, the families of the victims still have no answers as to what happened that night in August 2019.

"It's almost like a slap on the wrist for them and a slap in the face for the families," said Paula Brito, speaking for the first time since her sister, Suzana Brito, died from injuries sustained in the crash on a lake north of Toronto.

"I feel that there hasn't been any accountability for what happened."

Brito and her parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit in November 2019 against O'Leary and his wife, Linda, who was behind the wheel, as well as the owner and the driver of the other boat, seeking $2 million in damages.

It's just one in a flurry of legal actions that are all temporarily on hold after the O'Learys filed a motion in federal court denying any negligence and liability in the crash and seeking to prevent any additional claims being made against them in other courts.

In that motion, the couple also seek to limit any damages brought against them to $1 million under the Marine Liability Act. 

Months later in May, Kevin and Linda O'Leary filed their own lawsuit claiming more than $3 million in damages against Irv Edwards, the owner of the other boat involved in the crash, and Richard Ruh, the man who was driving, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Marko Petrovic, the lawyer representing Edwards and Ruh in the lawsuit, said the men will not be commenting. In court documents, they both deny responsibility for the crash. They are also seeking to have any damages against them limited to $1 million under the Marine Liability Act.

WATCH | Victim's family seeks answers about deadly boat crash:

Victim’s family seeking answers about deadly O’Leary boat crash

3 years ago
Duration 2:02
More than a year after a deadly boat crash involving entrepreneur Kevin O’Leary and his wife, the family members of one of the people killed says they've been told very little about what happened and are trying to get answers through the courts.

Two law firms are representing the O'Learys in the separate cases. Both declined comment because the matters are before the courts.

"I really can't believe that ... considering, you know, the loss of life," Brito said in an interview conducted over Zoom from her home in Spain.

Two people killed in boat crash

On the night of Aug. 24, 2019, a power boat owned by Edwards and driven by Ruh, his friend, came to a stop on Lake Joseph, in the township of Seguin, Ont. Nearly a dozen people were on board hoping to do some stargazing from the water, including Suzana Brito.

According to unsealed search warrant documents obtained by CBC News, the navigation light on the Edwards boat was turned off before 11:30 p.m., when the O'Leary boat collided with it, fatally injuring two of its passengers: Brito, 48, of Uxbridge, Ont., and 64-year-old Gary Poltash of Florida.

Kevin, left, and Linda O'Leary deny any liability or negligence in the boat crash and are trying to limit any additional claims against them in other courts. They've filed their own lawsuit against the owner and operator of the other boat. (Kevin O'Leary/Instagram)

Following the crash, Linda O'Leary was charged with careless operation of a vessel under the Canada Shipping Act. If found guilty, she could face a $10,000 fine. Ruh was charged with failing to exhibit a navigation light.

The search warrant documents also indicate that Linda O'Leary had alcohol on her breath the night of the crash. Police administered a breathalyzer test and O'Leary registered an alert, resulting in the automatic suspension of her driver's licence for three days. The Ontario Provincial Police documents say O'Leary claimed she had a drink after the crash.

That case is still before the courts, and the Public Prosecution Service, which prosecutes federal offences, has declined comment.

Many unanswered questions, family says

Despite all of the legal actions underway, Paula Brito said that one year after the crash, the victims' families still have many unanswered questions about the events leading up to the deaths of her sister and Poltash.

"We're in the dark," she said. "We don't have any information about what happened exactly that night."

Brito said her family has received no details about the investigation from the OPP and has learned nothing from the federal Crown. The family's legal team filed a motion in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice to access some of the files from the police and the Crown, but that matter is also pending with no hearing date set.

Suzana Brito, 48, of Uxbridge, Ont., was visiting a friend's cottage in the Muskoka area when she was one of two people killed in a boat crash in August 2019. The other victim was 64-year-old Gary Poltash of Florida. (Submitted by Paula Brito)

"It makes me very weary of how things have been treated, of the justice system, of the institutions," Brito said. "I mean, they're there to protect citizens, to uphold the law, ensure public safety. And yet this summer, there's been more boating accidents happening. So, you know, nothing's really ... come out of it."

Brito said her family still wants to know the details of Linda O'Leary's breathalyzer test that night and if there was any further blood testing to determine how much alcohol was in her system.

She also said she wants the O'Learys to own up to what she sees is their role in the fatal crash.

"That they would at least admit that they made the wrong decision that night in operating a vessel," Brito said. "That they just made the wrong decisions and that they apologize, because they never apologized to the families." 

She added: "Money talks and the privilege walks is how I think this is how we feel."

On the anniversary of the crash, Brito's legal team issued a news release imploring anyone with information about what occurred that night to come forward. It's a plea Brito echoes now.

"We need closure," she said.

Her lawyers have filed a counterclaim that challenges the O'Learys' attempt to limit their damages under the Marine Liability Act. The counterclaim seeks damages of $3.5 million from the couple for the death of Brito's sister.

'The first person we think of each morning'

Brito described her sister, Suzana, as "joyous" and a nature lover whose motto was "live life to its fullest." 

"She was a very devoted mom," Brito said. "She played sports with the kids. She didn't just send them off to play. She got in there, got her hands dirty."

Brito said Suzana, who was separated from her husband, got a spur-of-the-moment invitation from friends to visit their cottage for a "weekend of waterskiing and nice dinners and lovely company." Her children were attending a nearby camp, and she intended to pick them up afterwards.

Paula Brito, left, says her sister was a devoted mom who tried to live life to the fullest. (Submitted by Paula Brito)

She said she was first alerted that something had happened to her sister when her mother called her in Spain.

"I do remember trying to calm my mother down and telling her that I ... would catch the next plane out," Brito said.

At the airport as she boarded her flight to Toronto, Brito learned that her sister had died from her injuries.

"I just had a stomachache throughout the whole thing. It was very paralyzing, actually. Numbing," she said. "Throughout the whole ordeal, the next days after it was that sensation like it was just — we were in a dark cloud.

"She's the first person that we think of each morning and the last person before we go to sleep," Brito said, referring to Suzana.

Claim reveals extent of O'Leary's injuries

While the court documents do little to shed light on what happened the night of the crash, the O'Leary civil claim gives a clearer picture of the extent of Linda O'Leary's injuries.

The claim against Edwards and Ruh seeks $1 million for Linda O'Leary to compensate for "pain, suffering, emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life." The claim also seeks $2 million for Kevin O'Leary, who appears on the U.S. reality TV show Shark Tank, for "loss of income."

The legal action reveals that Linda O'Leary's injuries to her right foot required the removal of cartilage and the insertion of three plates and screws, and that "the joints in her right foot will remain fused and immobile."

According to the claim, she "suffered psychological trauma and emotional distress" and has not been able to work since the crash. It said her husband was forced to cancel a number of paid appearances because of the publicity generated by the crash.