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Boating Under the Influence of Drugs and Alcohol

Impaired boating is a serious problem in Florida, threatening the well-being and lives of hundreds of people every year. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission reports under-the-influence operators are the second leading cause of fatal boat tragedies in the state. Many more incidents of injury and property damage can also be traced back to impaired boaters.

The experienced boating injury attorneys Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, have remained staunch advocates of tough boating under the influence (BUI) laws, with penalties that match those meted out for drunk drivers on the road. The consequences of both remain grave.

While alcohol use was cited as the primary cause of accident in 15 percent of fatal boat crashes, it’s often a contributing factor in many others. It was the second most commonly cited cause of deadly boating accidents in Florida in 2013 – more common than weather, operator inexperience, excessive speed or carelessness.

Florida leads the nation in the number of boating injuries and deaths every year, and authorities aggressively pursue those operators who fail to adhere to BUI laws.

Evolution of Florida BUI Laws

By and large, state laws regarding impairment are similar for boat operators as compared to motor vehicle drivers. However, there are a few ways in which they differ.

For example, on the road, a police officer must have probable cause of a suspected crime to stop a vehicle. The same is not true of boats, meaning the U.S. Coast Guard or police can stop a vehicle at any point for random “spot checks” to ensure the safety of those on board. Officers may stop and board a vessel for any nearly any reason, such as checking registration or enforcing safety regulations.

Another way in which these stops may differ is authorities use different types of sobriety tests. Because of conditions in the boat in open water, traditional sobriety tests – such as having someone walk a straight line – may be considered inaccurate while on a rocking, unsteady boat. Many agencies instead employ seated tests, which focus more heavily on gaze tracking and hand-eye coordination.

There was a time when standards for impaired boating differed from those set forth for driving under the influence. That has mostly changed.

Prior to 1994, Florida law considered boaters to be under the influence of alcohol if blood alcohol concentration measured 0.10 percent or higher. But starting in January of that year, the state legislature lowered the limit to 0.08 percent – the same as for DUI. The law is applicable to those operating boats as well as other types of water vessels.

The standard limit for operators under 21 is 0.02 percent blood alcohol concentration.

Similarly, prior to 1998, Florida boat operators faced no penalties if they refused to undergo sobriety testing. However, the Kelly Johnson Act (named for a Volusia County teen who died in a boating accident) changed that, allowing for “implied consent.” That means a boat operator offers an implied consent to sobriety testing simply by getting behind the wheel. Refusal to submit to such testing upon request will result in fines and community service.

That same act also expanded the definition of “operating a boat” for purposes of BUI. It can mean actual, physical control of the vessel, but it can also refer to the person who had responsibility for the vessel’s navigation and safety while the vessel is underway – whether or not that individual was seated in the captain’s chair at the time of the incident or crash.

Consequences for Florida BUI

From both a criminal and civil standpoint, the potential consequences of boating under the influence as compared to driving under the influence are greatly similar.

F.S. 327.35 governs BUI definitions and criminal penalties. A person over 21 convicted for a first-time offense of BUI for a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or impairment of normal faculties due to drugs will be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor. That’s accompanied by a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to 6 months. A second violation is also a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $2,000 in fines and 9 months in jail. A third offense within 10 years is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. If the third offense occurs more than 10 years after the date of the second conviction, it’s punishable by up to one year in jail.

Penalties are enhanced if one’s blood alcohol concentration exceeds 0.15 percent.

A person who causes property damage or minor injury as a result of BUI commits a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. A person who causes serious bodily injury to another as a result of BUI commits a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Someone who kills someone while operating a boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs commits a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. That penalty is upped to a first-degree felony – punishable by up to 30 years in prison – if he or she knew or should have known an accident occurred and failed to render aid and information.

In terms of civil penalties, anyone who causes serious injury or death to another by way of negligence can be sued by an injured party or survivors of decedents. There is no cap on the amount of damages the court may award.

In order to prove negligence, plaintiffs must generally show:

  • Defendant owed a duty of care to plaintiff
  • Duty of care was breached
  • That breach resulted in injury to plaintiff
  • Plaintiff’s injury resulted in measurable damage

Our experienced Southwest Florida boating accident lawyers have successfully handled countless boating injury cases. We fight aggressively to ensure our clients receive just compensation for injuries and losses resulting from a boat operator who recklessly consumes alcohol or drugs before taking the helm.

Contact Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights. There are no fees or costs unless we win. Offices in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples and Port Charlotte.

Call 800-646-1210 for a Free Consultation

Client Reviews
Bruce L. Scheiner and his team were the most friendly people I've ever met they genuinely cared about me... I highly recommend them
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I was really satisfied with services I received. Bruce is not only an attorney, but like family. He got me three times what I thought I would receive and was always there when I needed an answer on something. I'd say he is the best attorney I have dealt with in my 68 years.
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I found working with the BLS firm to be a very good experience. They kept me informed on my case, answered all my questions, and were prompt when I needed assistance.
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I was in an accident and BLS was very helpful and gave a lot of support. If I had any questions, it was just a phone call away. Everyone in the office is very nice and helpful.
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We had a wonderful experience with everyone here. The staff and attorneys were friendly, knowledgeable, and compassionate. They inquired about our injuries and our recovery. I would highly recommend their services!
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BLS was incredibly helpful with my case, even during the hard challenging periods of my case Bruce & PJ were always just a call away. Even though they couldn't answer my call at that direct moment, they ALWAYS made a point to call me back. The staff at Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner were always helpful and friendly, if they didn't have the answer they would always call me back with what I needed to know.
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