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

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

“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."


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.
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.
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 M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.