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Family of 12 year old paddle-boarder killed in San Diego's Mission Bay watercraft crash files lawsuit

Alex Riggins, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN DIEGO — The family of a 12-year-old paddle-boarder who was struck and killed last year in Mission Bay by a man operating a rented personal watercraft has filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the city and county of San Diego and other public entities the family believes are responsible for maintaining the safety of the bay.

Mark and Ashley Peterson allege that the death of their daughter, Savannah, could have been prevented if the public entities responsible for Mission Bay would have enforced laws concerning unregulated rentals and uncertified watercraft operators. The suit names as defendants the city and county of San Diego, the state of California and the San Diego Unified Port District.

A spokesperson for the city declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Spokespeople for the county and the Port also declined to comment, and it was unclear Wednesday whether either agency has any jurisdiction in Mission Bay.

The suit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, also alleges negligence by those entities and Arsanyous Refat Ghaly, the 18-year-old man who struck Savannah, as well as the couple who rented him the watercraft and OfferUp, the company that runs the app on which the rental transaction allegedly occurred.

Ghaly, now 19, is facing a criminal count of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence for Savannah’s death. Following a preliminary hearing earlier this month, a judge ordered him to stand trial.

The deadly crash happened around 2 p.m. on July 29, 2023, in the area of De Anza Cove. Authorities have alleged that Ghaly, who a lifeguard had earlier warned about driving too fast near the shore, was traveling between 47 and 53 mph at the time of the collision. Authorities have said the crash happened within 100 feet of shore, in an area where watercraft operators must slow down to 5 mph or less, though Ghaly’s attorney disputed the crash location during the preliminary hearing.

The family’s lawsuit, filed late Monday afternoon, claims that the city and its employees, including lifeguards and police officers, knew about the “illegal chartering and use of jet skis on Mission Bay … by untrained, incompetent, dangerous, illegal operators” and yet did nothing to stop it.

The suit also claims that a “crucial opportunity to prevent” Savannah’s death was missed just eight minutes before the crash when a San Diego lifeguard stopped Ghaly and another man he was riding with because they were allegedly speeding and driving recklessly.

The lawsuit alleges that “despite this clear instance of dangerous behavior,” lifeguards and other authorities did not remove Ghaly and his companion from the water.

“Furthermore, at the scene of the collision, the same lifeguard recognized Defendants Ghaly and (his passenger), realizing with dismay that he had issued a warning to the same individuals just minutes earlier,” the lawsuit alleges. “This realization underscores a critical point: had the lifeguard taken more stringent action following the initial infringement, namely removing Defendants Ghaly and (his passenger) from the waters of De Anza Cove or even Mission Bay, the tragic loss of (Savannah’s) life could have been averted.”


The attorney representing Ghaly in his criminal case did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was not clear Wednesday if other individuals named as defendants in the suit had attorneys who could comment on their behalf.

According to the lawsuit, Ghaly and two other men rented two personal watercraft from a San Diego County couple who’d advertised their availability on OfferUp, a site that directly links sellers of used goods with buyers and renters.

In contrast to rental companies licensed by the city, unlicensed operators aren’t required to explain safety protocols or how to avoid hazards in the bay, and they typically lack the insurance required for licensed operators. San Diego lifeguard Chief James Gartland said last year that people renting from smartphone apps, instead of regulated rental businesses, is a major concern.

“They get on an app, they rent a vessel, they show up at a public boat launch, they get on it and they go 70 miles an hour within two to three minutes,” Gartland said last July. He said operating a personal watercraft without proper safety instructions is dangerous.

“That’s where the accidents happen,” he said. “That’s where the bad stuff happens.”

The Peterson family’s lawsuit claims the rental transaction was unlawful and that the various public entities responsible for Mission Bay did not do enough to prevent the fatal crash.

“In other words, Defendants created a death trap, were aware of this and related dangerous conditions, and yet failed to warn or abate it,” the lawsuit claims.

The family is seeking an unspecified amount of economic damages as well as damages for pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and anxiety.

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