County prosecutor won’t pursue manslaughter charge against builder of boat in fatal sinking

LAKE STEVENS — Prosecutors have declined to file charges against a King County man who police believe knowingly sold an unsafe boat that capsized on Lake Stevens two years ago, killing a woman.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler said Tuesday that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the boat maker was criminally liable.

If the case had gone to trial, it apparently would have been the first time a Washington product manufacturer faced criminal charges for a product linked to a death, legal experts say. Nationwide, such cases are rare.

Still, the boat maker, Philip G. Warnock, 67, of Covington, is well known to consumer protection advocates. Warnock has a long history of running businesses in ways that draw consumer ire and government rebuke, records show.

The Snohomish County sheriff’s detective who investigated the Lake Stevens capsizing believes that Warnock showed criminal negligence when he built and sold a dangerous boat. That’s why investigators asked prosecutors to consider filing a second-degree manslaughter charge.

Warnock did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Herald. He has, however, cooperated with detectives.

Police alleged that Warnock knowingly sold a Lake Stevens family a boat made with a cheap kind of foam not approved for marine use. Instead of repelling water, the foam acted like a sponge.

The boat was full of people on the lake on July 11, 2009, when a wave swamped the bow. The foam became saturated, and the boat sank in two minutes.

Killed was Cindy Tate, 48, a beloved businesswoman who was active in the Lake Stevens community.

Criminal charges against the manufacturer of a faulty product involved in a fatality are rare, said Elizabeth Porter, a visiting assistant professor and torts scholar at the University of Washington School of Law.

She could think of only two high-profile cases in the U.S. in the past several decades.

In the 1970s, Ford Motor Co. was prosecuted when it was alleged that Pinto gas tanks were vulnerable to explosion or fire in some rear-end collisions. The company was acquitted of criminal negligence.

In the second case, pieces of the ceiling inside a Boston traffic tunnel fell onto a car in 2006, killing a woman inside. Prosecutors alleged that the project’s epoxy vendor used an unsafe glue. The vendor was charged with manslaughter but was allowed to settle the case before trial by paying millions of dollars.

Porter was unaware of any similar cases in Washington state that have led to charges.

The investigation at Lake Stevens was time-consuming and complicated, partly because of the difficulty in linking a suspect to a death that happened miles away, said Al Baker, a detective with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

Baker said that in his more than 40 years as a cop, he never spent as much time on a case.

After Tate died, Baker and an insurance company surveyor took the boat apart for careful analysis.

The vessel had several components that did not meet federal regulations, Baker said. The boat was in poor condition, but Baker believes two manufacturing flaws directly contributed to Tate’s death.

The boat incorporated open-cell foam, which absorbs water, instead of closed-cell foam, which repels water and is approved for marine use.

When the boat was pulled from the lake, the foam had soaked up about 500 pounds of water, Baker said.

The boat sank in two minutes, whereas most similar-sized vessels could have been expected to float at least a few hours, even if swamped.

“It’s directly related to the foam in there,” Baker said. “It’s why someone died.”

Secondly, Tate’s seat had a faulty latch device that trapped her between the seat and the steering wheel as the boat went down, Baker said.

He believes rescue crews may have been able to reach Tate and save her life had she not been dragged to the bottom of the lake. The latch on her seat also didn’t meet federal standards.

Warnock is a felon who served time in state prison in the 1990s for fraud. In the years since, he’s been the focus of several civil actions related to business practices, records show.

As recently as 2008, the state Attorney General’s Office was fielding consumer complaints against Warnock.

The cases against Warnock go back almost 30 years, said Dave Huey, senior counsel with the office’s Consumer Protection Division.

Most of the complaints have involved Warnock allegedly taking money for boats he never delivered or taking in boats for repairs and never returning the vessels, Huey said.

“He clearly has the same patterns throughout his career,” Huey said.

In 2002, Huey’s office sought a temporary restraining order to ban Warnock from a boat show in Tacoma. They had received multiple consumer complaints about Warnock reportedly not delivering boats or finishing boat repairs after collecting payment.

State lawyers ended up signing an agreement with Warnock, who promised to change his practices.

In 1985, Warnock signed an agreement with the attorney general’s office to end litigation that sprang up over similar allegations in the Spokane area, Huey said. Warnock was ordered to pay restitution in that case.

Around the same time, Warnock was at the center of a series of Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper stories regarding alleged labor problems. The newspaper reported that the state Employment Security Department was referring hires to Warnock, but he never paid the workers for their time.

Warnock has as many as a dozen businesses in Washington, most of them involved in the boat business, records show.

He recently told detectives that he now is building boats in the U.S. and selling them in Canada.

Diana Hefley contributed to this story.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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