Was Alcohol to Blame for a Weekend Boating Accident in the Florida Keys that Left 9 People Injured?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

As our attorneys have warned before, boating season can be extremely fun, but it can also be extremely dangerous. With multiple vessels out at sea simultaneously, no doubt filled with passengers who are drinking and trying to have a good time, accidents are almost bound to happen, especially when there aren’t strict laws protecting boaters against negligent operation of vessels by pilots who are speeding, distracted, intoxicated, or inexperienced.

Sadly, with each year that passes, boating accident rates keep escalating. According to the Coast Guard’s annual Recreational Boating Statistics report, the number of injuries and fatalities from boat-related accidents and collisions has dramatically increased in recent years. In fact, between 2010 and 2011, the number of fatalities caused by accidents involving motor boats, sail boats, jet skis and other maritime vessels and personal water crafts went up from 672 in 2010 to 758 in 2011 – a 12.8 percent increase.

And now, after just a month of boating season commencing, a tragic collision has befallen two groups of boaters in the Florida Keys.

According to ABC News, a two-vessel collision near Sands Cut, a popular sandbar near Elliott Key, on Sunday evening has sent nine people to the hospital with serious injuries. The crash occurred around 6:30 p.m. when a 28-foot vessel carrying two people crashed into a 36-foot Carrera transporting 16 passengers, throwing nearly every boater into the water.  The impact of the crash was so severe that it caused the smaller of the vessels to capsize.

The victim who sustained the most severe injuries, including a possible concussion, required assistance by a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue helicopter to emerge from the water.

Oddly enough, a preliminary investigation of the incident did not reveal that alcohol was a factor. Both vessel pilots were issued field sobriety tests, but because the injuries were not classified as “severe,” authorities did not perform blood tests to determine the exact alcohol level – if any – of the captains, a crucial mistake which may have caused an intoxicated boater to get away with their crime.

However, if investigators find that either pilot violated any of Florida’s boating laws, charges may be filed.

Alcohol is the leading cause of boating accidents in the United States, yet not every state imposes strict laws against intoxicated vessel operation, also known as Boating Under the Influence (BUI). In 2011, the Coast Guard reported that 125 were killed in boating accidents because the pilot of the vessel was under the influence and incidents continue to happen because boaters are unaware of the laws against alcohol consumption in their state, knowingly violate alcohol regulations or are fully aware that the laws in their state won’t come down hard on them enough to merit abiding by maritime rules.

Just one drink while out in the open waters is enough to leave a pilot impaired. Because of several factors, including hot weather, rocking motion of the waves, wind, and others, people who drink while on a vessel reach a level of intoxication much quicker than those on land.

The penalties that can be incurred for BUI can include expensive fines and going to jail, but not all states carry the same punishment for intoxicated boaters. Florida, for example, does not require field sobriety tests to be conducted on land if the incident occurred in open waters and does not merit driver’s license revocation in the event that a boater is caught operating under the influence.

These inconsistencies among state boating regulations can lead to confusion and an increase of accidents in general. It is important that in the absence of formal BUI or other boating regulations, vessel operators exercise extreme caution while manning the helm and pay attention to other boaters in the area. Speed should be kept at a safe minimum and all passengers on a water craft should wear their life jackets at all times, which can save lives in the event that a collision occurs and a vessel capsizes or boaters are thrown from their vessels. Needless to say, no boater should consume alcohol while out on the open waters, but if alcohol is consumed, pilots should always refrain from drinking to prevent any kind of boating accident from taking place.