THE SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES OF CASUAL ATTITUDES IN OPERATING A BOAT

This is the next of a series of columns on how the law can impact your life. Each month we will focus on various aspects of the law relating to personal injuries, those that happen both on-the-job and otherwise, including mishaps which occur in driving vehicles, using products and receiving medical care. The column will also respond to legal questions relating to personal injury that are sent to us.

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The Serious Consequences of Casual Attitudes in Operating a Boat

This fall, Tony Borcia was going to start fifth grade. Unfortunately, a tragic accident on the Chain O'Lakes means that he will never have that chance.

At the beginning of the summer, we talked about some tips to stay safe this boating season. Now, as summer is coming to a close, boating safety has been given a very real name and face: 10 year old Tony Borcia.

On July 28, Tony was water tubing with his sister behind a pontoon boat driven by their father on Petite Lake, part of the Chain O'Lakes. As anyone who has gone water tubing knows, it is very easy to fall off; and sometimes, falling off is one of the best parts. Tony did in fact fall off the tube and into the water. Tony, who was wearing a life preserver, floated in the water while his father carefully turned the pontoon boat around to pick him up. But as he made his turn, Tony's father saw a large white speed boat "flying down the middle of the lake and bearing down on his son." The speed boat struck Tony, killing him.

At first, investigators were unsure what to make of the tragedy - an unavoidable accident or wrongful conduct by a boater. Toxicology results would soon reveal that the latter was the culprit - the driver of the speed boat was allegedly intoxicated with alcohol and had recently used cocaine. A State Police forensic scientist extrapolated the driver's blood draw to determine that the driver's blood-alcohol content was between .09 and .128 at the time of the crash.

Unlike driving a car, there is no prohibition to driving a boat while drinking. However, like driving a car, you are prohibited from driving a boat while intoxicated. Similarly, a driver is prohibited from operating a boat with any measurable amount of a controlled substance, such as cocaine or marijuana, in his system.

Further investigation would also show that this was also not an isolated incident. The driver who struck Tony had previously been charged with operating a boat while intoxicated - once again on the Chain O' Lakes. In light of the above, the driver was charged with reckless homicide and aggravated driving under the influence.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin and Illinois lead the country in water related deaths. Although Tony's death is just one of the latest, hopefully it will serve as a grim reminder of the serious consequences that come from a lack of boating safety.

Make sure your boat has proper equipment

Although many think that all you need to operate a boat are swim trunks and flip-flop sandals, boating regulations address a wide variety of equipment that must be on and in the boat, including proper lighting, an adequate number of life preserves/life jackets, whistles and fire extinguishers, just to name a few. Regulations also require that lighting on the boat be used during sunset and sunrise while the vehicle is underway.

Although GPS and other electronic devices can be helpful in boat operation, it is important to not become overly reliant on these electronic devices, as they may fail to work or work well while out on the water.

Finally, remember that life jackets are prone to wear, tear and damage over time. Don't just expect that the life jackets you used the last couple years are still good to use this year.

Be careful with rental equipment

Often, boating equipment you use will not be your own, but will be a rental or borrowed equipment. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the equipment before you use it - including any safety devices. Make sure also to read all warnings and instructional stickers before operating the equipment.

Additionally, when rental equipment is used, make sure you are utilizing a reputable and established rental service. Use the internet and other resources to research the service before you rent.

Also, as discussed more fully below, inquire with the rental service about their insurance and whether it only covers the equipment or you as well.

Have boat insurance

Unfortunately, unlike car insurance, boat insurance is not mandatory in most states. Nevertheless, it is just as important to be adequately insured when it comes to boating insurance as it is with car insurance. Boat insurance will have similar coverages to your automobile policy: liability, property damage, medical payments and uninsured and underinsured coverages. Of course, since boat insurance is not mandatory, having uninsured and underinsured coverage for yourself may be critical if you are injured as a result of someone else's negligence.

Depending on the size of your boat, your homeowners insurance may provide some coverage for your boat or jet ski. Check with your agent to see if you are covered. The larger the boat that is involved, the more likely it is that it will not be covered and that a separate policy will need to be purchased.

Drive Safely and Pay Attention to Others

Most importantly, drive your boat safely and make sure you are paying close attention to other boats and those not in boats: skiers, tubers, swimmers. Although waterways generally do not come with traffic lights or lines - act as if you would on the roadway. Illinois law forbids a driver from operating any watercraft in a careless manner as to endanger persons or property. It specifically prohibits weaving through congested traffic, jumping the wake of another vessel unreasonably or unnecessarily close to the other vessel, passing in a manner that creates a hazardous wake or waiting until the last possible moment to swerve to avoid a collision.

Boating is a fun and memorable experience and for many one of the most enjoyable part of summertime. While no one wants to take that away, it is just important to keep in mind that casual attitudes towards operating a boat can have tragic results. Taking all necessary precautions will ensure that your memories of boating are all positive.

By: Martin Healy, Jr.

Dennis M. Lynch