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Two boats, two accidents, two lawsuits

Crownline and a construction company face legal actions after 10 die in separate barge crashes

In separate accidents within weeks of one another, two powerboats this spring struck barges moored in protected waters, leaving 10 people dead and prompting two lawsuits.

The 22-foot Crownline was carrying 14 people, two more than its rated capacity.

Overloaded with 14 people, a 22-foot, 6-inch Crownline struck a 25-foot workboat tied to a private dock on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway about 20 miles north of St. Augustine, killing five and injuring nine. The 2000 Crownline has a 12-person capacity.

“I’ve been working boating accidents for over 20 years, and there’s no question that this is the most serious accident in terms of number of fatalities and the number of serious injuries,” says Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Lt. Don McMillan, supervisor of investigations in the FWC’s northeast region.

Three passengers who survived the crash are suing Crownline for more than $75,000, arguing that the bowrider design is unsafe because those seated forward of the helm obstruct the driver’s view. Crownline, headquartered in West Frankfort, Ill., declined to comment on the litigation or the April 12 accident.

On May 22, a 24-foot aluminum fishing boat powered with a single 300-hp Yamaha 2-stroke hit a barge about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, killing the five men on board. The accident happened at 10 p.m. on the Falgout Canal between Theriot and Dulac. The barge was being used to stabilize the bank.

The men, who were between the ages of 43 and 59, had attended a crawfish boil and planned to participate in a fishing tournament the next day, according to published reports. The boat was traveling northwest on the tidal canal. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is investigating the accident. Further details were unavailable.

Relatives of three of the deceased boaters claim in a lawsuit that the barge’s owner failed to properly light and moor the vessel the night of the collision. The Antill Pipeline Construction Company, of Houma, La., owns the barge. General manager Stephen Champagne has said in published reports that the barge was lit at the time of the crash.

Crownline crash

Three of the five people killed in the Crownline crash were in their early 20s; the two others were in their 40s. All five were under the influence of alcohol, and three were also under the influence of illegal drugs, according to the medical examiner’s office in St. Augustine.

The Crownline was traveling north from the Conch House Restaurant in St. Augustine and back to a boat ramp in Jacksonville, where it was launched earlier in the day, says McMillan. No one was aboard the barge at the time of the accident, which occurred at 7:15 p.m. with plenty of daylight remaining, he says.

F&A Enterprises, of St. Augustine, was using the workboat to move an adjacent barge carrying a crane during the construction of the dock. The dock is located in Palm Valley, on the east bank of a straightaway section of the ICW. The waterway is about 350 to 400 feet wide here and the channel around 125 feet wide.

The owner of the boat, Melvin D. Bethel, 37, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was on board but not driving, and the vessel’s speed had yet to be determined, according to McMillan.

The probe was slowed because authorities were trying to determine who was responsible for the operation of the boat. It’s not as simple as blaming whoever was at the helm, says McMillan. A state law passed in 1998 — the Kelly Johnson Act — expands the definition of “operating a boat.” It can mean either physically controlling the vessel or “to exercise control over or to have responsibility for a vessel’s navigation or safety while the vessel is under way,” the statute states.

“I explain [the statute] like this: If the captain sticks an inexperienced person at the helm and there’s an accident, is it fair to blame that person?” says McMillan. “We know there was a person sitting in the captain’s chair, and that person was killed in the crash. The question is whether that person was responsible for the navigation and safety of the vessel while it was under way.”

McMillan declined to identify the driver because the investigation is incomplete, but he did say the person at the helm was not legally drunk, with a blood alcohol level of 0.035. The legal limit is 0.08. Autopsy reports have since identified Jacqueline Allen as having that amount of alcohol in her system. The others who perished had levels from 0.11 to 0.21. Three also had cocaine in their systems, according to the medical examiner’s office.

It’s unclear whether the operator’s view was blocked or whether he or she was distracted when the Crownline 255BR with a single sterndrive struck the workboat, according to investigators.

“Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the person in charge of the vessel that [he or she] can see or the person at the helm can see,” says McMillan.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the Coast Guard and the state attorney’s office are also part of the investigation. “It’s a long process,” says state attorney investigator Jim Parker. “We’re probably talking about months.”

The victims were mostly friends, including some from California who had moved to Florida and others who were visiting from California, according to published reports.

Bowriding or operator error?

Passengers Jaimie A. Hole, 22, Francis Moore (age unavailable), and Joshua Moore, 18 — all from California — filed a lawsuit April 24 in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville.

“Despite the known hazards of bowriding, Crownline Boats Inc. promotes and advertises that it is safe to operate their boats at high speeds with passengers sitting forward of the windscreen,” writes attorney G.J. Rod Sullivan in the seven-page document. “Passengers cannot safely sit forward of the driver while the boat is in operation.”

The suit cites a 1994 Coast Guard safety circular that references the dangers of “bowriding.”

“Designing and manufacturing boats which encourage bowriding has been known by boating manufacturers to be an unsafe practice since at least 1994,” the suit states.

However, sitting in a designated bow seat is not “bowriding,” says Coast Guard Capt. Mark Rizzo, chief of the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety. “If a boat is designed with seats in the bow, we can’t cite you for sitting in those seats. But if you’re sitting on a flat area of the deck with your legs hanging over the water, then we can cite you. That’s bowriding. If a boat strikes something and someone is ejected from those seats, then it’s operator error.”

The injuries that the three plaintiffs sustained are not listed in the lawsuit, but the suit does say they suffered “pain and suffering, and disfigurement.” The suit prompted strong responses on numerous Web sites, including Soundings sister publication Trade Only.

“This is a case of negligence by an unqualified boat operator, and criminal charges should be brought against the operator and owner of the vessel, if they are not one in the same,” writes Joe Carr Sr. “If the operator was qualified, there would not have been this many people on the boat. If [the crew] impaired [the operator’s] vision, he should have slowed immediately to a stop.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.