Client Stories: Intoxicated Boat Operator Causes Four Deaths in Collision

Michael GrossmanMarch 05, 2019 3 minutes

Even those who have some familiarity with dram shop law may still believe that it only applies to crashes involving drunk driving. While the majority of dram shop claims may fall into this category, the law allows for claims in any circumstances where a licensed vendor provides alcohol to an intoxicated person, who go on to injure themselves or others. This means a wide variety of fact patterns, from someone trying to walk across highway traffic while drunk and being struck by a vehicle to a person collapsing and dying while walking back home from the bar could create grounds for such a claim.

One case we recently accepted vividly illustrates why Texas law doesn't limit dram shop claims to those involving drunk driving. In this case, a man was operating a ski boat while intoxicated when it collided with a bass boat carrying several people. The collision led to the deaths of four people and severe injuries to several others. While we're still attempting to determine where the intoxicated operator obtained the alcohol he consumed that day, if it was sold to him while he was already drunk, there's another business who deserves to bear their share of the responsibility.

How A Carefree Evening of Boating Became A Tragedy

The events we'll discuss today occurred in Chambers County, TX, near the Hugo Park boat ramp. A bass fishing boat carrying around seven people and a wake vessel (or ski boat) carrying five had both traveled around a blind corner on a lake when the wake boat struck the bass boat.

Police determined that the operator of the ski boat was intoxicated at the time of the crash. They arrested him on several counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. While his exact BAC remains to be determined, we can assume, based on the goofy smile in his mugshot photo, that he was still profoundly inebriated at the time of the incident.

This crash had truly catastrophic consequences, with multiple families ripped apart by the loss of their loved ones. Even those who survived suffered critical injuries that required doctors to place them in medically induced comas. While the vehicle involved in these events may vary from a more typical dram shop claim, the human devastation left in its wake is just as palpable.

How This Case May Differ From Other Dram Shop Claims

Depending on what exactly happened before the boat operator who allegedly caused this collision, it could present challenges not present in most dram shop claims. These cases generally involve someone who was over-served at a bar or restaurant and left the premises, after which their intoxication led directly to injury or death. This makes it a reasonably straightforward task for an experienced attorney to prove that the alcohol served by the establishment was what's called the proximate cause of the harms that occurred, or that they wouldn't have happened without it.

By contrast, if someone is intoxicated while operating a boat, one likely scenario is that they purchased alcohol at a retail store, then consumed it off-premises, either on the vessel or on their way down to the dock. In that situation, proving the store's liability requires an attorney to establish that the purchaser was already intoxicated when the vendor sold them alcohol.

The separation between purchase and consumption in this situation also makes it easier for an establishment's defense team to argue that some other alcohol, purchased or consumed somewhere else, could have actually caused the intoxication that led to the plaintiff's injuries. Fortunately, while this risk may make some less experienced attorneys hesitant to pursue claims like this, we have a variety of evidence we can draw on to demonstrate the link between the alcohol purchased at the defendant's store and the events of the crash.

The most useful pieces of evidence in this scenario would obviously be anything that could prove the intoxicated operator was already drunk at the time of purchase. This could include surveillance footage from the retailer's security cameras, testimony from witnesses who might have observed the purchase, or even a shaky signature on a receipt. While the store probably won't want to hand any of this over voluntarily, a legal document called a subpoena, once approved by a judge, can compel them to do so.

Ultimately, whether the boat operator responsible for these deadly events was drinking at a bar or restaurant or consuming alcohol he purchased at a retail store, it's likely there's a business who contributed to the injuries and loss of life that he caused. Given our firm's years of experience investigating similar cases, we're confident that we'll be able to find out who that was, secure the evidence needed to hold them accountable, and obtain some measure of justice for the families affected by this tragedy.