Criminal Probes and Boat Accidents – What Does it Mean?

Dennis Sullivan

Dennis Sullivan is a shareholder with Stepp & Sullivan, P.C. in Houston. His trial practice has an emphasis in civil litigation, including representation of individuals injured by the negligence of others, including catastrophic injuries and those injured in aviation and maritime accidents.
Dennis Sullivan

What happens when a criminal probe is launched into a boat accident, and what does it mean for you if you were injured in that accident.  These are questions many people have after they have been injured in a boat accident.

The U.S. Coast Guard has authority to investigate the circumstances surrounding boat accidents.[1]  If, during their investigation, some evidence of criminal conduct is identified, the Coast Guard Investigative Service can become involved in the investigation.[2]  The Investigative Service is not involved in every investigation, and when they are it is an indication that there is a serious concern regarding criminal conduct.  The Coast Guard Investigative Service is a federal law enforcement agency and is authorized to conduct investigations of criminal activity and make arrests for all crimes under the jurisdiction of the United States.[3]  Many times, the Coast Guard Investigative Service becomes involved in maritime matters when there is a belief that crimes have been committed on the water.

The opening of a criminal investigation into a boat accident is an indication that the Coast Guard may be investigating the possibility that a crime has occurred.  When a criminal investigation is opened, the Coast Guard is entitled to request search warrants, and conduct searches for evidence of criminal conduct.[4]  Recently, it has been reported that the Coast Guard opened a criminal investigation into the dive boat CONCEPTION tragedy and is joined by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.  The CONCEPTION investigation is reportedly being conducted in association with the U.S. Attorney’s office and is likely focusing on the condition of the CONCEPTION and the activities of its crew and owners.  This investigation, while currently under seal, is likely to examine whether the CONCEPTION had working fire alarms, adequate safety systems, adequate crew training, proper crew activities and an appropriate means of escape for the passengers, among other things.

One avenue for criminal charges arising out of the CONCEPTION tragedy is under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute.[5]  The Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute criminalizes misconduct or negligence that result in deaths involving boats on United States waters.[6]  This statute holds crewmembers, as well as owners and corporate officers responsible for the death of persons onboard the vessel if the death is found to be the result of fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct or violation of law.  A criminal conviction can be obtained under this statute for negligence—a beach of a duty to act or the failure to act that is in violation of a standard duty of care.

The criminal investigation may uncover evidence of the cause of the accident.  If the cause of the accident is found to be the result of the crews, or owners or corporate officers’ neglect, homicide charges could be filed.

While the criminal investigation is ongoing, the owners of the CONCEPTION have filed a Limitation of Liability Act lawsuit, alleging that they should have no responsibility in paying damages to any of the deceased or inured people onboard.  This action is civil in nature and separate from the criminal investigation.  However, the investigation of the criminal case will continue.  It is possible to use the evidence gathered in the criminal case, under certain circumstances, and most often requires a court order in order to do so.  As a result, ay person injured, or families that have tragically lost a loved one in a boating accident that is being investigated criminally, should consult a maritime attorney who is experienced with maritime criminal and civil litigation matters.

During a Coast Guard, NTSB, or criminal investigation into a boat accident, the crew, the accident victims or their family members can expect to be interviewed by the Coast Guard, NTSB and law enforcement authorities.  While the interview may be conducted for the Coast Guard, NTSB or criminal investigation, the contents of the interview may be able to be used in a civil claim for damages.  Because the statements the crew, accident victims or their family members make during the investigation could be used in a criminal investigation, and, further because they may be able to be used in any claim for damages that is brought, it is extremely important to consult with an experienced maritime lawyer before you consent to any interview, so as to make sure that all of your rights are protected.

Stepp & Sullivan, PC is a maritime law firm, with extensive experience in Coast Guard and National Transportation and Safety Board investigations, and resulting criminal probes into maritime and boat accidents, and has experience in handling thousands of claims filed in maritime accidents during the past 35 years, including claims from crewmembers, passengers, and bystanders.

[1] 14 U.S.C. 2

[2] 14 U.S.C. 89

[3] 14 U.S.C. 95

[4] 14 U.S.C. 99

[5] 18 U.S.C. 1115

[6] Id.

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