Every summer thousands of metro Atlanta residents take to the surrounding lakes in boats. And every summer we see fresh cases of boating accidents, often collisions between watercraft in which someone is drinking alcohol, often at night, killing or injuring people involved. Boating under the influence is a major hazard on Georgia lakes.
Last July on Lake Lanier, a fishing boat collided with a pontoon boat at night, immediately causing the deaths of two young brothers.The operator of the fishing boat failed a field sobriety test and refused to take a blood alcohol test. He was charged with boating under the influence, first-degree homicide by vessel, refusing to render aid and several other offenses. This week Hall County Superior Court Judge Kathy Gosselin denied a defense motion to dismiss those charges.
This incident, among others, helped prod the Georgia General Assembly to pass legislation
earlier this year to lower the blood alcohol limit for boat operators to 0.08 gr/%, the same for regular motor vehicles on the roads. Governor Nathan Deal, who is from Gainesville on Lake Lanier, is dead serious about cracking down on boating under the influence in order to save lives on Georgia’s lakes.
Nationally, according to the US Coast Guard, in 2012 some 4515 recreational boating accidents caused 651 deaths and 3000 injuries. The fatality rate was 5.4 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which deals with accidental injury risks as well as communicable diseases, says alcohol use affects judgment, vision, balance, and coordination, is involved in about a third of all recreational boating fatalities, and is just as dangerous as driving under the influence on land.
Georgia boaters should study the Georgia boating safety rules including those on unsafe operation, accidents and casualties, and alcohol, take a boating safety course and generally increase their awareness of water safety and boating safety issues.
Unfortunately for victims, Georgia law still lags on financial responsibility for boating, as insurance is not required for a boat license. That may be an issue for legislators to consider in the future. However, smart boat owners carry liability insurance for their boats and personal water craft. Representation of boating accident victims requires knowledgeable counsel who can make a thorough exploration of all insurance coverage possibilities.
Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), is double board certified in civil trial advocacy and civil pretrial advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, published a book on trial preparation, and has a selective personal injury and wrongful death law trial practice based in Atlanta.