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Defamation suit over 2016 fatal boating incident is settled

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A confidential settlement has been reached in a multi-million dollar lawsuit that accused a man of using social media to defame the operator of a boat involved in a fatal collision on Smith Mountain Lake in 2016.

“As we previously notified the Court, the parties in this case have executed a confidential settlement agreement,” plaintiff’s attorney F. Elizabeth Burgin Waller wrote in document filed in Henry County Circuit Court on Dec. 6. “Per the terms of the agreements, please find enclosed a copy of a final agreed dismissal order in this case. We ask that the Court please enter the order.”

Court documents did not state the terms of the settlement or whether any money was involved in the case between plaintiff Drewry Woodson Hall, who piloted the boat, and defendant Thomas Key Blackwell, who was nearby when the collision happened.

On Dec. 12, Circuit Judge David V. Williams signed the order dismissing the case.

“This day came the parties, by counsel, and represented to the Court that they agree to a resolution and final dismissal of this action,” the order states. “The clerk is directed to remove this action from the docket and place it with those matters ended and to furnish all counsel of record with certified copies of this order.” 

The case was dismissed with prejudice, which means that the plaintiff is barred from filing a lawsuit on the same issue at a later date. 

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It was on July 3, 2016, that Hall, of Henry County, piloted a boat that hit a motorized personal watercraft carrying passenger Gabby Ayers, 17, of Clemmons, North Carolina, and operator William Rentz Brandt, 19, of Danville. It happened in a cove near the Anthony Ford Boat Ramp, on the Pittsylvania County side of the lake. 

Hall, then 20, and his passenger, 22-year-old Capers Penn Zentmeyer of Martinsville, helped pull the two ashore. Ayers died and Brandt was treated at a hospital for non life-threatening injuries. 

Hall initially brought the defamation lawsuit against Blackwell, of Danville, in July 2017, seeking $1.2 million in damages. An amended lawsuit was filed last November seeking $5.7 million, court records show. The amended lawsuit also sought an award for legal costs and asked the court to order the social media posts removed. 

The lawsuit alleged that Blackwell, who was near the collision, spread false facts regarding the incident on social media The lawsuit also stated that Blackwell urged law enforcement to charge Hall. 

Blackwell’s lawyers denied the allegations of defamation and said some or all of their client’s statements were opinion and touched on matters of public concern. 

Originally, Hall was charged with operating a boat in a reckless manner, but in October 2017, Pittsylvania County General District Court Judge George A. Jones reduced that to operating a boat in an improper manner, fining him $300. 

Jones also found there was sufficient evidence to find Hall guilty of purchasing or being in being in possession of alcohol on the day of the collision. Jones took it under advisement for a year and ordered Hall to perform 20 hours of community service. That case was dismissed Oct. 30, 2018, court records show.

Paul Collins reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at

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