Rental Company Owner Fined After Pleading Guilty In Fatal Pontoon Boat Incident

OCEAN CITY — A downtown Ocean City watersports rental company and its owner charged last year with numerous violations following the death of a nine-year-old boy who fell from a rented pontoon boat pleaded guilty this week and paid $320 in fines.

Following an investigation into a tragic incident last August when a boy fell from the bow of a rented pontoon boat and was fatally struck by the vessel’s propeller, Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) applied for charges in District Court in Worcester County against OC Watersports LLC and owner Tyler Barnes, who operated 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 District Court commissioner, who determined probable cause existed for the five charges.

Shortly before 3 p.m. last Aug. 17, 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.

As a result, Barnes and OC Watersports LLC were charged with five counts related to the fatal pontoon boat accident including improper equipment on a rental vessel, failure to keep records and negligent operation of a vessel, the latter because it’s considered negligent operation for boat rental company to allow an overloaded vessel to leave the dock.

The charges also included 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 charging documents, the rented pontoon involved in the fatal accident last August fell short of having the required number of floatation devices on board by two.

On Wednesday, Barnes pleaded pre-paid guilty to four of the five charges and was fined a combined $320. The possible fines ranged from a low of $55 for failure to keep records to as high as $320 for the negligent operation of a vessel. After pleading pre-paid guilty to four of the five charges on Wednesday, Barnes was required to pay a combined $320 in fines.

Meanwhile, the rented pontoon boat’s operator, Dustin Healey, 26, of Freehold, N.J., was also charged with negligent operation of a vessel following an investigation into the fatal incident last August. Healey was at the controls of the rented pontoon when the nine-year-old boy slipped from the bow and into the path of the propeller.

According to NRP officials, the child was one of four people sitting in front of the boat’s safety railing with his legs dangling above the water in an activity known as bow-riding. Healey reportedly told NRP officials following the accident he knew passengers were sitting on the bow but could not see the child from the boat’s controls and was only alerted to the boy’s fall when other passengers began screaming. Healey is set to appear for trial next Friday on a negligent operation of a vessel charge, which carries a maximum penalty of $500 for a first offense.

In the wake of several serious boating accidents in the resort last summer, including a fatal propeller strike that claimed the life of a child in August, Ocean City’s representatives in Annapolis, including Senator Jim Mathias and Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, began discussions in earnest with state boating officials, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its enforcement wing the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) about tightening the regulations governing the dangerous practice of bow-riding. As it stands now, there is no specific language in state law regarding bow-riding and it is mired somewhat in the larger citation of reckless operation.

The initial plan was to address the issue through the regulatory process, but that plan was changed midstream and a decision was made instead to pursue legislation in the Maryland General Assembly session to address the bow-riding issue. Mathias and Carozza submitted cross-filed bills, but the legislation  failed to pass before the session timed out last week.

Instead, while there will be no new law on the books on bow-riding this summer, the DNR and NRP are working on an aggressive public awareness campaign to get the word out about the dangers of bow-riding.

“We are working with our partners in the Coast Guard, Senator Jim Mathias and Delegate Mary Beth Carozza along with the civic and business community to launch a comprehensive education and enforcement plan that will be in place before Memorial Day,” NRP spokesperson Candus Thomson said this week. “We anticipate an unveiling of our plan in Ocean City during National Safe Boating Week and we hope folks will embrace that message.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.