Accused in a lawsuit of causing the death of a former Westport man at sea, food store owner Stew Leonard Sr. will have to defend himself on his native soil.
Despite Leonard's claim that the death of Robert Speranza, who died two years ago after he fell from Leonard's yacht in the Caribbean, was a "death on the high seas," U.S. District Judge Vanessa Bryant ruled Monday that the civil case should be heard in state Superior Court in Bridgeport.
"Leonard's delay tactics cannot postpone this case any longer; he will finally have to face a Bridgeport jury and explain how his reckless boating caused the death of Mr. Speranza," said Joel Faxon, a lawyer representing Speranza's widow, Barbara.
"The delays both in the federal court reaching the issue of remand and the Tortola inquest have been very difficult for Barbara to deal with as she searches for answers and accountability for this terrible loss," Meehan added.
Leonard founded the grocery chain that bears his name with stores in Norwalk, Danbury, Newington and Yonkers, N.Y., which now are run by his son, Stew Leonard Jr.
"This is a procedural ruling that moves the court case from federal to state court, it does not affect the merits of the case," said Stew Leonard Jr. "The Speranzas were personal friends of my mom and dad so this is a very emotional time for all of us."
On Aug. 16, 2011, Robert Speranza, 73, was a passenger on Leonard's 70-foot powerboat, "Stew's Special," near the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands when the reckless operation of the boat caused him to be tossed overboard, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement later, Stew Leonard Sr., 83, said: "As we got further out to sea, the waves turned from 2- to 3-foot to 5 to 6. As we were approaching Virgin Gorda, about one mile offshore, a rogue wave about 12 to 15 feet high suddenly came out of nowhere and hit the bow of the boat.
"I was behind the 10-foot-wide bulletproof windshield, which took the full force of the impact of the avalanche of water, and put my two arms up to protect my face," he said in the statement. "But both Bob (Speranza) and my son Tom were swept down to the back of the boat. Tom was able to grab onto a railing, but the torrent of water swept Bob overboard and he was left drifting unconscious in the water."
Leonard said the captain, Martijn Haasdit, dove in and was able to bring Speranza back to the boat. "And we immediately began CPR, which continued for the next 30 minutes until we reached the dock in Tortola."
Meehan said the Leonards took out the boat even though they knew rough weather was on its way to the area.
"The seas were building and it was not safe for the boat to be operating in those seas," he said.
Speranza's lawyers say the boat was operated at high speeds in dangerous seas near Tortola. A small craft advisory/warning had been issued, they said.
"As the master of the boat, Stew Leonard made a reckless decision to go on that trip," Faxon said.
Stew Leonard Sr. had the boat designed to go as fast as 90 mph, Faxon said.
"I'm quite certain the evidence is going to show the speeds were excessive," Faxon said.
A former NASA engineer, Speranza later went on to build many of the homes in the Saugatuck Shores section of Westport, Meehan said.
He and his wife later moved to St. Maarten, where they owned the Ocean Club resort.
Faxon said the Speranzas had been married for 53 years and were enjoying travel.
"She's devastated by this whole thing," Faxon said. "They lived a tremendous life. They were just loving retirement."
On New Year's Day 1989, Stew Leonard Jr.'s 21-month-old son, Stew Leonard III, drowned in the swimming pool at the family's home in St. Maarten in the Caribbean.