At first blush, it appeared that Davies Kabogoza — a one-time soccer stand-out for both Westmont and Santa Barbara City College — was destined to live a charmed life. In 2010, Kabogoza managed to flee the crushing poverty and the very imminent threat of violence in his native country of Uganda, to arrive in the Promised Land of Santa Barbara. Here, his soccer skills and radiant personality won him no shortage of friends, well-wishers, and even a few guardian angels. All that came crashing to a water-logged end two years ago, however, when he drowned in Santa Barbara Harbor while taking a leisurely paddleboard excursion with a friend.
A gifted athlete, Kabogoza did not know how to swim. He’d declined a traditional vest-style life preserver, preferring instead an inflatable model wrapped around his waist. he put it on backward, however, making it all but impossible to activate should its help prove necessary. It was, and he couldn’t. In addition, there was no leash attaching him to his rental paddleboard. At the time of his death, Kabogoza was a month away from getting married.
Kabogoza may be gone, but he’s far from forgotten. At issue now is who can be sued for his death, for how much, and by whom. Showing up in Judge Donna Geck’s courtroom this Friday morning were nearly 10 attorneys ready to do legal battle over the tentative ruling Geck had just issued on key procedural aspects of the case, which might finally go to trial six months from now.
Geck’s key ruling — though not yet final — was that the City of Santa Barbara and its Waterfront Department are immune from all civil liability in this case, leaving the owners and operators of Blue Water Boating, the paddleboard rental firm that operates out of the city’s waterfront, on the hook to defend itself in a gross negligence lawsuit filed on behalf Kabogoza’s mother. Geck ruled that City Hall could not be sued in this instance because state law grants it immunity from complaints involving “hazardous recreational activities.” Paddleboarding, the judge found, qualified as just that.
Attorney Leila Noël, representing Kabogoza’s mother, argued long and hard to change Judge Geck’s mind, but at this writing, it remains too soon to say whether she succeeded or failed. If the judge doesn’t change her mind — the likely outcome — Noël has vowed to appeal. City Hall is responsible, she argued, because of changes made to the waterfront infrastructure — the creation of the breakwater to name one — that have altered the natural conditions. Those changes, she charged, have made places where the water is choppy even choppier. The waterfront, she argued, conveys a false sense of security.
Attorneys for Blue Water argued that Kabogoza had signed a release form excusing them from any liability when he took the board out. (Noël noted that the type for that release was so small as to be unreadable, adding that Kabogoza’s signature has yet to be authenticated.)
Blue Water has advanced a more creative legal defense, arguing that the paddleboard qualifies under federal admiralty law as a vessel. As such, the maximum amount Blue Water can be held liable for is the cost of replacing the vessel, in this case about $450. That argument was thrown out in federal district court, but will be heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in two weeks.
Complicating the legal picture even further, a woman claiming to be Kabogoza’s wife filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Blue Water as well. There is no record of Kabogoza being married, so this action has other participants scratching their heads. Reportedly, it has been dismissed.
“My story is a world, and in a world, many things happen,” Kabogoza told reporter Dan Nelson in 2012. “We get to be places that we never dreamed of and that’s my story.”
According to Nelson’s reporting, Kabogoza was born in a small Ugandan village, one of four children. His father abandoned the family when he was five; his mother was so poor she’d only owned one dress her entire life, he said. The family shared a one-room house. Before he traveled to the United States, Kabogoza worked 12 hours a day hauling lumber for which he was paid the equivalent of 40 cents. As a child, Kabogoza learned to play soccer kicking a ball he’d fashioned out of banana leaves. At age 16, he quit school to work full time. In villages not far away, armies populated with child soldiers inflicted unspeakable atrocities upon each other.
At age 21, Davies Kabogoza came to the attention of a Santa Barbara school teacher affiliated with an international philanthropic organization focused on sports and Christianity. At the time, he was in Uganda speaking forcefully in front of large crowds on behalf of sexual abstinence in response to the AIDS epidemic then ravaging his country. The teacher offered him a ticket to Los Angeles. To make that journey, Kabogoza had to walk from his home to the American Embassy, a seven-hour trek undertaken in six-year-old shoes that had grown too small for his feet. He got there.
Once in the United States, he came to Santa Barbara, where he secured a scholarship to City College. There he excelled at soccer. But for many years his immigration status was uncertain, making it hard to secure steady gigs. It’s uncertain how he resolved these challenges, but with help from his sponsors and others he met along the way, he landed a job coaching at Laguna Blanca for a while. In addition, he secured modeling contracts and assignments.
Based on details included in Judge Geck’s tentative ruling, there’s no shortage of questions about the adequacy of Blue Water’s safety practices when it came to paddle board rentals and whether the Waterfront Department did enough to make the rental company hew a more rigorous path. According to Geck, it’s an undisputed fact that prior to Kabogoza’s drowning, the Harbor Patrol had responded to several instances in which paddleboard customers were either not wearing life preservers or not wearing them properly. In one instance, the voyage was terminated. It also came out that City Hall was aware that some Blue Water customers wore their “fanny-pack–style” life preservers incorrectly and had informed Blue Water of this.
Even after Kabogoza had drowned, Geck claimed in her ruling, that city waterfront workers were stopping some Blue Water customers who’d been allowed out without inflatable belt packs. After Kabogoza’s death, City Hall initiated new rules requiring Blue Water to provide leashes with all paddleboards. The city also circulated new safety maps showing paddleboard riders where to be especially cautious. None of that information, however, was new, according to legal papers filed on behalf of Kabogoza’s mother.
Judge Geck is taking arguments under submission and will issue a final ruling later.