OCEAN CITY — A downtown watersports rental company, along with its owner, has been charged by Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) with multiple counts related to a fatality last summer including negligence.
Following an investigation into the tragic incident in August when a nine-year-old boy fell from the bow of a rented pontoon boat near the Inlet in Ocean City and was fatally struck by the vessel’s propeller, Maryland NRP officials last week applied for charges in Worcester County District Court against OC Watersports LLC and owner Tyler Barnes, who operates the watercraft rental operation near the base of the Route 50 Bridge at Talbot Street. The NRP’s application for charges was reviewed by a Worcester County court commissioner, who determined probable cause existed for five charges.
As a result, Barnes and OC Watersports LLC have now been charged with five counts related to the fatal pontoon accident in August including improper equipment on a rental vessel, failure to keep records, negligent operation of a vessel, the latter because it is considered negligent operation for a boat rental company to allow an overloaded vessel to leave the dock.
The statement of charges also includes two counts of failure to keep required equipment on a vessel. The reasons given for the last two counts include a failure to keep a legible maximum capacity plate aboard the vessel and a failure to keep enough required floatation devices for the number of occupants on board. According to the statement of charges, the rented pontoon is question fell short of having the required number of floatation devices on board by two.
Each of the counts include an option of paying a fine in lieu of appearing for trial. The fines range from a low of $55 for failure to keep records to as high was $320 for negligent operation of a vessel, although the average is in the $85 to $90 range. The combined fines total around $650. A preliminary hearing has been set for Feb. 17.
Shortly before 3 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard and NRP officers responded to a reported accident involving a rented pontoon boat in the Sinepuxent Bay behind Ocean City. The nine-year-old victim, who was riding on the vessel’s bow, fell overboard and was struck by the boat’s propeller and was seriously injured. The child later succumbed to injuries sustained from the propeller strike.
In the wake of the fatality and a run of similar incidents involving rented vessels throughout late summer, a coalition of professional bay captains initiated a push for tighter regulations on bow-riding specifically and higher standards for the rental industry in general. As a result, State Senator Jim Mathias and Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, both of whom represent Worcester County and the resort area, this fall began exploring potential changes to the regulations regarding bow-riding.
Heretofore, bow-riding was not specifically regulated in Maryland and fell loosely under a larger prohibition on reckless operation, for example. However, Mathias and Carozza began exploring a potential legislative remedy to the bow-riding issue, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its Boat Act Advisory Committee and the NRP began exploring a regulatory alternative.
After a series of meetings between the local lawmakers and the Boat Act Advisory Committee in December, it was determined a regulatory alternative was favorable to a legislative remedy because of the time constraints of getting a bill passed in time for the upcoming summer season. As a result, the proposed change in the law prohibiting bow-riding will be published in the Maryland Registry this winter and following a requisite public comment period the new regulation could become effective by the end of March, or well in advance of the spring and summer boating season.