Alcohol Intoxication Leads to Fatal Boating Accident
This case study summarizes the events leading up to and following a fatal boating
accident on Florida's intracoastal waterway. It illustrates the role of blood alcohol
back-extrapolation and weight-of-evidence (WOE) in an alcoholic impairment assessment
and demonstrates how behavior and judgment on the part of the defendant can be considered
as evidential in a toxicological analysis.
A man was operating a 29-foot center console fishing boat equipped with twin 250
hp engines in the intracoastal waterway near the mouth of John's Pass in Madeira
Beach, Florida, with two passengers on board. Prior to the accident, the man had
grounded his boat deeply onto a known sandbar and requested assistance. After a
tow vessel had arrived and the boat had been freed, the captain noted that the man
appeared to be operating his boat unsafely and erratically. Shortly afterward, the
man entered John's Pass at a high rate of speed and collided with a slow-moving
personal watercraft (jetski) carrying two passengers. Both passengers were dismembered
The man did not stop after the impact, but instead continued to travel west until
another vessel came alongside his boat and ordered him to stop. Although he anchored his
boat, he made no effort to assist the injured passengers in the water. He claimed he
was unable to maneuver due to the right engine being damaged.
Witnesses stated that a woman on the boat was seen dumping something out of a bottle
near the back of the boat while the other two passengers were seen scurrying about
in the cockpit. Several witnesses also reported observing the man drinking multiple
bottles of water immediately following the accident and prior to the arrival of
law enforcement personnel.
Upon arrival at the accident scene, the attending officer noted bloodshot eyes,
slurred speech and an alcoholic odor emanating from the man's breath. An inspection
of the boat's cooler revealed 11 empty beer bottles. The attending officer further
noted that the man's statements with respect to pre- and post-accident events were
inconsistent with statements from witnesses. These facts collectively constituted
probable cause to suspect that the man was under the influence of alcohol at the
time of the crash. The man refused to perform any field sobriety tasks, but consented
to blood draws (which were obtained two and three hours after the accident). The
man subsequently stated that he had consumed "two or three beers" throughout
the day and that the last was consumed two to three hours prior to the accident.
The man was taken into custody and subsequently charged with DWI and leaving the
scene of an accident.
Toxicological Assessment of Contributing Factors
Dr. Sawyer acquired and reviewed case records and prepared retrograde blood alcohol
concentration (BAC) measurements to the time of the accident. He also reviewed affidavits
and statements of witnesses pertaining to various behavioral facts with respect
to potential alcoholic intoxication, as well as the following documents:
- Boating Accident Investigation of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,
Division of Law Enforcement
- Pinellas County Forensic Laboratory Analyses
- Florida Department of Law Enforcement Alcohol Testing Program Blood Alcohol Analyses
- Forensic Laboratory Request for Toxicological Analysis
- Medical Examiner's postmortem reports of accident victims.
Upon reviewing the pertinent events and circumstances of the case, Dr. Sawyer consulted
the generally-accepted peer-reviewed toxicological literature and compiled the evidential
components and causal characterizations required to perform a toxicological assessment.
Dr. Sawyer subsequently produced a written report upon which he relied during testimony
before a jury. Dr. Sawyer's testimony addressed several significant lines of evidence
- Numerous judgment defects were noted in defendant's behavior. Defendant was displaying
evidence of impaired judgment and/or visual defects shortly before and after the
- Grounding defendant's boat on a sandbar to the degree that a tow boat was required
to extract it is highly suggestive of reckless operation (even twin outboards totaling
500 hp could not back the boat off of the sandbar). The captain of the tow boat
also stated that defendant followed him recklessly at high speed following extraction
from the sandbar.
- Defendant's boat was observed to be "maneuvering aggressively" toward
another boat minutes before the crash. Additionally, defendant's boat maintained
its speed as it approached the idle-speed jetski. This is, in itself, highly suggestive
of impaired driver perception (it is always incumbent upon the pilot to avoid slower
craft in convergence situations regardless of size).
- Defendant's boat continued to travel at the same rate of speed after impact until
told to stop by another vessel. It was further noted that defendant's boat
was equipped with twin engines and defendant claimed the 2nd engine had been damaged.
In reality the 2nd engine was not damaged, nor would it have mattered as defendant
continued to leave the accident scene using the other engine until ordered to stop.
All of this strongly suggests impairment of both perception and judgment.
- Defendant's boat crossed into the channel at 25-30 mph even as the jetski approached
from the right. This is a clear violation of power boat navigation rules and suggests
a lack of awareness manifesting as a callous disregard for the safety of others.
- The attending officer noted in his report that there was no proper look-out on
defendant's vessel as required by Coast Guard Inland Navigational Rule #5. Additionally,
defendant violated Coast Guard Inland Navigational Rule #15 which states: "When
two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel
which has the other on his starboard (right) side shall keep out of the way and
shall avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel."
Blood Alcohol Calculations
The objective scientific evidence revealed two post-crash blood alcohol levels (0.0765%
at 2 hrs and 0.0556% at 3 hrs). Based upon generally-accepted metabolic rates, the
degree of ethanol loss could be calculated. Dr. Sawyer determined that defendant
eliminated 15,039 mg of ethanol between the time of the accident and the 1st blood
draw and a total of 21,660 mg between the time of the accident and the 2nd blood
draw. Both blood tests yielded approximately the same result of 0.11 g/dL (0.11%)
BAC and 0.12 g/dL (0.12%) BAC at the time of the accident.
Calculation of the previous blood alcohol concentration is reliable and generally
accepted when delayed absorption of alcohol from the stomach contents can be ruled
out. In this matter, defendant stated that he had not consumed any alcoholic beverages
for "approximately two to three hours prior to the accident."
If true, this is outside the delayed-absorption range; thus, delayed absorption could
not have occurred following the accident. A blood-alcohol concentration of 0.09%
to 0.25% places defendant's intoxication level in the "Marked Intoxication"
range,1 a degree of intoxication which is characterized by:
- Loss of critical judgment
- Decreased sensory response
- Emotional instability
- Decreased inhibitions
- Impaired memory and comprehension
- Increased reaction time
- Muscular incoordination
Based on the totality of available information, the blood analyses performed by
law enforcement and the weight-of-evidence relating to defendant's conduct, Dr.
Sawyer was able to determine, to within reasonable toxicological certainty,
that defendant was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident and that defendant's
intoxication substantially contributed to the fatal boating accident. Defendant's
blood alcohol level (BAC) of approximately 0.11% (0.11 g/dL) at the time of the
accident placed his intoxication level in the "Marked Intoxication" range.
This characterization was consistent with defendant's unusual behaviors as noted
by police and witnesses.
Defendant was charged with leaving the scene of a boating accident involving injury
and/or death (two counts), and boating under the influence-manslaughter (two counts),
by the Circuit Court for the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Florida. A civil jury found
defendant and his insurance carrier liable for damages and awarded approximately
1.5 million dollars and an additional $500,000 in punitive damages to the families
of the decedents.
State warrants were issued for defendant's arrest, but he had fled the state. A
federal arrest warrant was issued by U.S. District Court of Florida after defendant
was charged federally with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. He is wanted by the FBI at the time of this
writing (see "Wanted" poster).2
Coincidentally, Dr. Sawyer is a highly experienced navigator within Florida's intracoastal
waterways and operates a boat similar to that of defendant. Dr. Sawyer noted in
his report that these are potentially dangerous waters and that all boaters must
be on guard against hidden shallows, sandbars, manatees, underwater obstructions
and (in particular) other boats. Defendant clearly failed to demonstrate the prudent
and responsible degree of attention required to safely navigate these waters.
(Disclaimer: Toxicology case studies are impartial and objective summaries of toxicological
matters in which TCAS was retained for the purpose of assessing health-based
factors which, in some cases, led to a determination of causation. In the above
matter, Dr. Sawyer was retained by plaintiff.)
Notes and References
- Goldfrank, et al., "Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies,"
Fifth Meditation, 1994, Appleton & Lange, Norwalk, CT, pg. 814.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Wanted: Miguel A. Alvarado," U.S. Department of Justice, 2006.
- Adapted from photo by Jack Jamieson, Portsmouth, Hampshire