Attorney honored for 50 years of service

Cote specialized in maritime cases

By Megan Schmidt
The Holland Sentinel

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) — There were no bodies, no witnesses and no boat — but Jack Coté was determined to figure out what happened to the four men who set sail on Lake Michigan on Sept. 25, 1980, and were never seen again.

After the Sea Mar III disappeared en route from Chicago to Holland, Coté inspected a boat identical to it and noticed a potential problem.

“I went down below into the stern of the vessel and I noticed a shaft of light streaming in,” he said. “I knew if the light could come in, water could come in.”

It took 10 years, but Coté found answers. He represented the sailors’ families in federal court, winning a multi-million dollar case in which he described how a flaw in its design doomed the cabin cruiser.

Recently, the State Bar of Michigan and the state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Robert Young recognized Coté for 50 years of service to the legal profession.
Coté, 82, still wears the gold ring custom made for him after winning the Sear Mar III case. It has four diamonds — one for each sailor who perished — and a life ring on each side.

The Holland attorney specialized in cases reconstructing what happened to vessels and crews who simply disappeared on the water.

“Frankly, if it were not for Jack Coté, the survivors of the Sea Mar III loss wouldn’t have any clues to the disappearance of their loved ones,” said Craig Rich, a member of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates board of directors.

For the Sea Mar III case, Coté consulted with underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.

He also flew the boat’s manufacturer in from Pennsylvania, he said.

“I made him an offer three times to go 50/50 on a search for the boat, and he turned me down three times,” Coté said. “Before he left, he turned to me and made an astounding statement. He said, ‘Jack, I don’t think you can put it all together.’”

Sea Mar III wouldn’t be the only big maritime case Coté would investigate, however.

He also took on 1993 case where Detroit restaurateur Chuck Muer’s boat disappeared somewhere off of Florida’s east coast. The U.S. District Court of Eastern Michigan ultimately ruled in favor of the Muer estate.

Today, the former partner of East Lansing’s Willingham and Coté continues a private practice. He represents other attorneys and judges in grievance cases.

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