Catching a wave to court

Veteran surfer wins small claims case after boards collide off Eastern Shore

By Michael Lightstone

Photo manipulation by Geoffrey Dow/True North Perspective.
Photo manipulation by Geoffrey Dow/True North Perspective.

A heated dispute between two adult surfer dudes, prompted by an accidental encounter in the Atlantic Ocean in 2008, landed in one of the most uncool places on Earth — small claims court.

And the claimant won his case thanks in part to the presentation of several exhibits that his lawyer, a former surfer, obtained while surfing the Internet, said a ruling delivered Tuesday.

The case revolves around two men — one a veteran surfer, the other far less experienced — who were riding their surfboards on a righteous wave before colliding in the churning water.

Claimant Donald Crowe, also known as Buck (his surfing name), took the other surfer to court hoping to collect $1,130 he said was needed to replace his significantly damaged new board.

Mr. Crowe's lawyer said Thursday there were no witnesses to the incident, which happened at a surfing spot near Seaforth on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore.

According to the judgment, defendant Jeffrey Adams was an acquaintance of Mr. Crowe's, having known him for a few years. Both men are probably around 40 years old, said Mr. Crowe's lawyer, David S. Green.

"They certainly knew each other through surfing, and perhaps were more friendly with one another than they are now," he told The Chronicle Herald.

When Mr. Adams was a novice, the ruling said, Mr. Crowe "gave the defendant surfing tips over the years until this incident." But the defendant, it said, "did realize that he did not have that much ability as a surfer."

Prior to the collision, Mr. Adams "may have been encouraged by his friends to increase his level of competency (and) headed out towards larger waves," said the small claims decision, delivered by adjudicator David T.R. Parker.

Mr. Adams's actions put him on a collision course with Mr. Crowe, it said.

"As a result, the claimant was unable to avoid the defendant," the judgment said. It said the assertion by Mr. Adams, who represented himself in court, that Mr. Crowe assumed the risk of having his surfboard damaged by participating in a dangerous sport, doesn't hold water.

Mr. Parker said Mr. Crowe, a surfer with about 26 years' experience, doesn't have to accept some of the blame.

"I have not ... considered this to be (an) appropriate matter for contributory negligence," the ruling said. But Mr. Parker did say surfing etiquette rules are not binding in law.

Among the evidence presented, "surf etiquette rules were provided by ... counsel for the claimant in the form of several exhibits which he obtained while surfing on the net," the ruling said.

The trouble started shortly after Mr. Crowe paddled his board out to the breakers.

"He said he had a totally clear path and the wave ‘was firing' and he ‘hit the lip,' " said the ruling. But while attempting a manoeuvre, an unintentional board meeting resulted in extensive damage to Mr. Crowe's surfboard.

"The defendant attempted to paddle for the shoulder of the wave instead of paddling for the white water and as a result he was in the path of the claimant," the decision said. A collision ensued.

A hearing was held in November in Halifax. Mr. Parker awarded Mr. Crowe $750 plus about $90 in court costs.

The ruling indicated Mr. Crowe and Mr. Adams almost settled their disagreement on the beach, dude to dude. The collision had gouged a large section of Mr. Crowe's board, it said, but neither man was hurt.

"The claimant said normally there would be (a) physical confrontation but instead he said he would take it to court," said the judgment.

Mr. Green acknowledged surfing disputes in this country don't usually wind up in a legal forum.

"I've been a lawyer for 31 years and this is the first one I've done," he said. "It's the first one I know of anywhere."

Mr. Green said he used to surf but doesn't anymore.

"Bad shoulders," he said.

22 January 2010 — Return to cover.