Coast Guard coxswain found guilty of dereliction in fatal collision

A U.S. Coast Guard petty officer was sentenced to three months in the brig and two others were reprimanded for dereliction of duty in a fatal 2009 crash involving their patrol boat in San Diego Bay.

An 8-year-old boy was killed when the 33-foot Coast Guard vessel rammed a recreational boat during a holiday light parade. Five other occupants of the pleasure boat were injured. Investigators have said distraction because of cell-phone use by the patrol boat crew may have been a factor in the collision.

The coxswain operating the patrol vessel, Petty Officer Paul Ramos, was court-martialed in the case. In March 2011, he was found guilty of dereliction of duty. A military court panel sentenced him to three months confinement, demotion to seaman from third-class petty officer and forfeiture of some pay.

Ramos failed to perform a risk assessment for the voyage, the Coast Guard said. He was acquitted of more serious charges, including negligent homicide.

Another crewman, Petty Officer Ian Howell, pleaded guilty in March to dereliction of duty. Howell was sentenced to a demotion to third-class petty officer from second-class petty officer, forfeiture of pay and 30 days restriction to base.

In January, Petty Officer Brittany Rasmussen pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and received a letter of reprimand.

Howell and Rasmussen allegedly failed to fully perform their roles as lookouts.

"This is an important step in the military justice process and in determining the cause of this tragic collision," said Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell after the court-martial.

The fatal accident happened Dec. 20, 2009, while vessel traffic was heavy for the San Diego Bay holiday event. Witnesses said the recreational boat, a 24-foot Sea Ray, was drifting when its stern was rammed by the 33-foot special purpose craft-law enforcement boat.

The death of the child was the first civilian fatality in a Coast Guard-related boat accident in at least five years. Two weeks earlier, a 25-foot Coast Guard response vessel had collided with a tour boat in Charleston Harbor, S.C., heavily damaging the civilian boat. The crashes prompted then-Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen to order a review of small-boat operations.

Seven months after the collisions, the Coast Guard banned its crews from using electronic devices while operating vessels. The Coast Guard later urged private operators to develop similar policies restricting the use of personal devices when they would create a hazard.

Besides dereliction of duty, Ramos had been charged with involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, aggravated assault and negligently hazarding a vessel.

A fourth patrol boat crewman had been charged with dereliction of duty, but that count was dismissed last year for lack of evidence. A fifth person who was aboard the Coast Guard vessel for training only was not charged.

Dewell said the Coast Guard's administrative investigation into the causes of the incident remains open. The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the casualty.

By Professional Mariner Staff