Skippers May be Liable If Drunken Guests End Up in the Drink

In our land of sun, fun and rum, most boaters understand the risks involved when someone drinks alcohol and then takes the helm. But what happens if an inebriated guest is injured or even dies?

Two recent cases from the Boat Owners Association of the United States (Boat U.S.) marine insurance claim files spotlight this issue. The first is an incident where an inebriated man passed out on a boat’s stern bench seat. Later that evening, he apparently woke up, fell overboard and drowned. In another case, a vessel was returning from a bar when an inebriated guest went overboard unnoticed and perished.

Boat U.S. damage avoidance program director, Bob Adriance, says, “It’s no secret that if you’ve been drinking heavily and your boat is involved in a serious accident, you could be held liable. What may not be as apparent is the liability you assume for other people aboard who have been drinking. This is true even if you haven’t had a drop of alcohol and are completely sober.”

In the event of a serious accident, courts apportion liability – with the boat owner’s share ranging from 0 to 100 percent – depending on the degree of perceived negligence. The dollar amount depends on the victim’s age and what he or she expected to earn had they lived. There may also be awards for conscious pain and suffering and loss of companionship.

When you total the potential for these awards they could easily surpass $300,000 – the amount of the “average” boating liability policy – especially if the deceased was young, in a high paying career field, or had children. To protect yourself, especially if you have significant assets at stake, Adriance advises purchasing an “umbrella” policy, which typically covers damages beyond standard boating liability policies. Umbrella policies are usually purchased with a homeowner’s policy.

Another way to prevent this problem is by making sure guests don’t drink excessively while boating.

“Alcohol is even more hazardous on the water than on land,” says Lt. Chris Gagnon, supervisor of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment on St. Thomas. “The marine environment – motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind and spray – accelerates a drinker’s impairment. These stressors cause fatigue that makes a boat operator’s coordination, judgment and reaction time decline even faster when using alcohol.”

Gagnon continues: “Alcohol can also be more dangerous to boaters because boat operators are often less experienced and less confident on the water than on the highway. Recreational boaters don’t have the benefit of experiencing daily boat operation. In fact, boaters average only 110 hours on the water per year.”

To sum it up, Adriance says, “The lessons here are that you are responsible for the safety of all aboard, you should do whatever you can to discourage excessive drinking by anyone on your boat, and you should seriously consider adding umbrella coverage.”

TIPS TO AVOID BUI (Boating Under the Influence)

Provided by the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment, St. Thomas, USVI

  1. Take along a variety of cool drinks, such as sodas, water, iced tea, lemonade or non-alcoholic beer.
  2. Bring plenty of food and snacks.
  3. Wear clothes that will help keep you and your passengers cool.
  4. Plan to limit your trip to a reasonable time to avoid fatigue. Remember that it’s common to become tired more quickly on the water.
  5. If you want to make alcohol part of your day’s entertainment, plan to have a party ashore at the dock, on the beach, or at a boating club. Choose a location where you’ll have time between the fun and getting back into your boat.
  6. If you dock somewhere for lunch or dinner and drink alcohol with your meal, wait a reasonable time (estimated at a minimum of an hour per drink) before operating your boat.
  7. Spread the word on the dangers of BUI. Many recreational boaters forget that a boat is a vehicle – and that safe operation is a legal and personal responsibility.
Carol_Bareuther
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.