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Even Non-Motorized Watercraft Can Be Dangerous

Last year in Canada, a tragedy occurred where an eight-year-old boy, Thomas Rancourt, was enjoying an autumn’s day, on a lake in a canoe, with the boyfriend of his mother. Tragically, young Thomas drowned to death on that lake when the boyfriend, who was drinking alcohol, capsized the boat, putting Thomas into the water, and the boyfriend was unable to rescue him.

Later, it was determined that the boyfriend, David Sillars, was beyond the legal limit of intoxication. He was subsequently charged with impaired operation of a vessel causing death. It was the first time in the history of Canadian law that this kind of charge had been applied to a canoe. While impairment and death-related charges are normally applied without a thought to motorized vehicles, like cars, motorcycles, and, of course, boats, this was the first time that such a charge had been deemed, even by a judge, appropriate for a “human-powered” watercraft like a canoe.

As tragic as that incident is, it’s not something that can’t happen in America, especially in a place with as many types of different boats as Florida. But if something like that were to happen in Florida, what kind of legal implications would there be?

Double Jeopardy

The biggest worry when it comes to boating accidents is that in addition to the physical damage to vehicles and people that may arise from a collision, there is another added danger; drowning. Every precaution should be taken when boating, including bringing a flotation device, such as life-jackets or other flotation devices for larger watercraft, like sailboats and yachts.

However, even with additional safety measures, that doesn’t mean that people can’t lose their lives in boating accidents. Parties on a large yacht, for example, mean that many people are often not wearing life-jackets, and, should they fall into the water, drowning is a real possibility. Even when someone is wearing a life-jacket, if he or she is knocked unconscious, there’s a real danger of drowning. People who fall off boats and are lost at sea are not guaranteed to be wet but safe, just because they have a life-jacket on. If they are not recovered quickly, there’s still an enormous danger posed for which the cause—and blame—will have to be found.

The Law Is Watching

This is why in Florida there are laws in place to cover the consumption of alcohol while boating. In the same way that a person operating a car or a motorcycle can be charged with DUI—driving under the influence—a person on a boat can be charged with BUI, or boating under the influence. Fortunately, the two are considered separate, distinct charges, so while boating under the influence can have a person charged by the police, this isn’t classed as a land/motor vehicle crime, and thus the consequences, such as a suspended driver’s license will not be handed out.

However, these are still considered violations of the law, and, unlike land vehicle violations, a BUI does NOT strictly apply only to motorized watercraft. In other words, even if a Florida resident is in a canoe, or kayak, and consumes alcohol to the point of being over the state limits, this can mean a charge from the police, or, in the case of accidents, can magnify the fault, and prove potentially devastating in a court case for personal injury or wrongful death.

Legal Yet Not

Where Florida law with regards to alcohol gets a bit confusing is in the permissiveness of the laws. Of course, boating is a very popular recreation here in Florida, thanks to the great weather and clear waters all year round. Because of that, many parties and other recreational activities often take place on watercraft, and it’s not unusual for alcohol to be consumed. Florida law understands this and accommodates these recreational needs. So it’s not illegal to carry alcohol onto a watercraft. It’s not illegal to open that alcohol, and even leave it in that unopened state. It’s not even illegal to drink that alcohol, and even the operator of a boat may do so.

It is only illegal for the operator of a boat be drunk, and under the influence of alcohol while operating the boat. So, for example, a party that takes place on a boat that lasts all night, where the boat operator gets drunk, sleeps off the alcohol, wakes up in the morning and returns to shore will not be charged with anything. However, an obviously drunk boater, in a canoe, can be stopped by the police or coast guard and charged. Should that canoer or kayaker get into an accident while under the influence thing can get very serious, maybe even go to court. At that point, it’s probably best to contact a lawyer with boating accident experience to explore all the legal options open.