A Boating Accident Lawyer’s Opinion on what Factors Could Have Contributed to a Fatal Capsizing Accident in Illinois

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Coast Guard searches for boating accident victimsIn our last blog installment, we discussed a fatal boating accident that took place in the Cal-Sag Channel, near Palos Hills, Illinois on Friday night. According to police, a 19-foot pleasure craft collided with a 66-foot commercial towing barge at around 11 pm last Friday night, causing the pleasure craft to capsize. The bodies of two victims, Jeremy Muzika and Viengsavanh Bielarz, have already been recovered, but police initially believed there may have been others that were still missing as of Saturday. We have yet to learn whether or not any other victims were recovered, but as of now, only two fatalities have been recorded, and the victims had both been riding in the pleasure craft. No word on whether anyone on the barge sustained injuries.

Though investigators are still searching for answers as to the nature of the accident, there are several factors that could have contributed to the terrible crash, many of which stem from negligence.

According to one of the victims’ brothers, Greg Bielarz, the group had a tendency to “go out boating every week.” Bielarz added that the group was aware of the frequent presence of barges and noted that “things happen.” This is a rather odd thing to say given the fact that his brother (who may have also been the owner of the vessel) and his brother’s wife were on the boat.

Officials are not releasing the names of the missing boaters as of yet, but continue to hope for the best with the search.

Only time will tell if the boaters – or the barge operators – were found to have committed some sort of negligent act. Given Greg Bielarz’s statement regarding the fact that the group tends to go out frequently to “have fun”, there’s a high chance alcohol may have contributed to the crash.

As our boating accident lawyers have noted before, alcohol is one of the leading contributors to crashes involving pleasure crafts. Although most states have strict laws against Boating Under the Influence (BUI), boaters constantly ignore these laws. And despite the fact that these laws are in place, sometimes, there is little repercussion for drunken boat operators. Last year, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a BUI bill that requires boaters involved in serious or fatal accidents to consent to chemical testing in order to determine their blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) level or drug level. The bill also requires that Illinois boaters who refuse to submit to testing, those whose BAC level exceeds the legal limit of 0.08% or those who test positive for illegal drugs following an accident will have their driver’s license suspended.

The boating accident lawyers at our firm could not agree more with this stipulation. Before the bill went into effect on January 1st of this year, boaters who were found to have been operating their vessels while intoxicated did not lose their driver’s license. Boating privileges were suspended, but the intoxicated motorist could still become just as intoxicated on dry land and commit a similar mistake. Creating stricter BUI laws – and harsher consequences when those laws are broken – serves as a deterrent for those who would otherwise be more inclined to drink while operating a vessel.

Aside from intoxication, speed could have also been a factor in the accident, or even a combination of intoxication and speed. Boaters are required to observe specific speeds while out in open waters, especially while sailing in a channel that serves as a commercial route. There’s a very real chance the operators of either vessel were speeding, and coupled with murky weather conditions, the risk of a crash was already fairly high.

Though this is not a factor that contributed to the accident itself, police noted that the victims had not been wearing life jackets, which could have contributed to their deaths. We cannot stress enough how important it is to always wear a life jacket while out in open waters. Even though boaters and watercraft users may not be engaging in any unsafe practices, accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. Some are the result of negligence, but others can happen due to unforeseen circumstances, such as a rogue wave hitting a vessel or a sudden medical emergency. A life jacket is the only thing that allows a victim to stay afloat, especially when the victim has lost consciousness or has been thrust into turbulent waters. Life jackets have been proven to save lives time and time again, yet, not every state imposes mandatory wear.

Far too many boating accidents, including this particular crash, may have had much different endings had victims been required to wear life jackets or truly understood the significance of their value to the preservation of life.