OCEAN CITY- A federal judge last week dismissed a $1 million civil suit filed in March against a popular resort nightclub attempting to hold the establishment responsible in part for the actions of an inebriated skipper who later crashed his vessel into the Route 90 bridge.
Around 1 a.m. on July 5, 2008, a 21-foot fiberglass ski boat carrying 10 people collided with an abutment on the Route 90 bridge in a dense fog, severely damaging the vessel and sending all of its occupants into the murky water with various injuries. Maryland Natural Resources Police, the Coast Guard and the Ocean City Fire Department responded to the scene, along with some off-duty firefighters in their private boats, and pulled the injured victims, some of whom were clinging to the bridge, from the water as the vessel sank. The boat operator, Scott Howard Shepard, then 32, of Rockville, was later charged with operating a vessel while impaired, negligent operation and reckless operation and was ultimately sentenced to 30 days in jail. Scott and his passengers had been at Seacrets before the accident and were later ferried by the nightclub’s water taxi to the vessel moored in the bay. Nearly three years after the accident, one of the victims, Danielle Vollmar, a former local television meteorologist who now lives in Oklahoma, filed suit in U.S. District Court against Shepard and Seacrets, seeking $1 million from each of the defendants, citing negligence by both parties that led to her injuries. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Garbis dismissed the portion of the suit against the nightclub, while the suit against the vessel’s operator moves forward. In the portion of the suit against Seacrets, Vollmar, through her attorneys, attempted to hold the establishment responsible in part for ferrying a clearly intoxicated Shepard to his personal vessel and allowing him to transport nine passengers in dangerous conditions leading up to the accident. “Seacrets knew or should have known that ferrying and encouraging a severely intoxicated patron such as Shepard to his boat, and then later ferrying the plaintiff to board and depart on the same boat with Shepard, created a condition of danger to the plaintiff and the public,” the complaint reads. Vollmar filed suit in U.S. District Court citing Maryland law and general maritime law in an attempt to evoke “dram shop” liability against Seacrets. Dram shop laws in some states hold bars and restaurants responsible for the actions of their patrons after they leave the establishments, but no such law exists in Maryland. In the absence of dram shop liability in Maryland, Vollmar is attempting to evoke general maritime law in the case, but maritime law applies only to action on the water. In the weeks following the filing of the lawsuit, Seacrets filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing the absence of dram shop liability in Maryland and the inappropriateness of a maritime law application in the case. Seacrets claimed it could be held liable to Vollmar under the dram shop theory of liability for anything that happened ashore because there is no such liability in Maryland law and the general maritime law does not extend to the operation of a bar onshore. In short, Seacrets cannot be held liable to Vollmar for anything that happened after she left its water taxi that night because she was “indisputably out of its care, custody and control from that point on.”
In his written opinion, Garbis ruled absent clear dram shop laws in Maryland, Seacrets could not be held liable for Vollmar’s injuries, which were the result of a collision long after Shepard and his passengers were delivered by the water taxi and miles away from the establishment. “Maryland law does not recognize dram shop liability,” the opinion reads. “Therefore, there was not duty owed to Vollmar under state common law by virtue of the fact that Shepard became intoxicated at the Seacrets facility.”
The judge pointed out while Shepard and his passengers ostensibly consumed alcoholic beverages while on land at the nightclub, they did not consume alcohol on the water taxi, although it is uncertain if they continued to drink on Shepard’s vessel. It is important to note Vollmar was taken to Shepard’s vessel in a second trip after Shepard had already been delivered to the boat. Vollmar does not allege that Shepard obtained or consumed alcohol while aboard the Tipsy III.
“Even had there been such an allegation, the court would still conclude that Seacrets, by delivering Shepard to his boat, had no duty to persons, including Vollmar, who might be injured by Shepard’s operation of his boat thereafter,” the opinion reads.
In his opinion, the judge ruled Seacrets liability ended when Vollmar, Shepard and the other passengers were dropped off at Shepard’s vessel by the water taxi.
“The facts alleged establish that Vollmar was safely delivered to her requested destination,” the opinion reads. “There are no allegations supporting a plausible claim that delivering Vollmar to Shepard’s moored boat, with some 10 people on board, placed her in danger for which the water taxi operator would be held liable.”