USCG crew accused of not posting lookout, face charges in fatal crash

Four members of a U.S. Coast Guard small-boat crew face criminal charges as a result of a 2009 collision with a pleasure boat in San Diego Bay that killed an 8-year-old boy.

The coxswain of the 33-foot Coast Guard boat has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Two boatswain’s mates were charged with negligent homicide. The Coast Guard said the boat was operating at an unsafe speed, with no lookouts.

The accident happened at 1745 on Dec. 20 during a holiday boat parade west of Harbor Island. The Coast Guard special purpose craft-law enforcement, or SPC-LE, was responding to a reported grounding when it struck the stern of a stationary 24-foot Sea Ray recreational boat.

The boy was sitting near the stern of the recreational boat when the Coast Guard vessel crashed into the boat, momentarily went airborne and struck him in the head. The National Transportation Safety Board said five other Sea Ray occupants were injured.

In July, charges were brought against the Coast Guard personnel under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They face possible court-martial and dishonorable discharge, the Coast Guard said.

The 21-year-old coxswain was charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, negligently hazarding a vessel and dereliction of duty. If convicted of manslaughter, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

“He negligently failed to complete a risk assessment or designate lookouts, prior to getting underway as coxswain of the vessel,†even though congested parade and holiday lighting created navigation challenges, the Coast Guard said in an affidavit.

“He negligently failed to maintain a safe speed as coxswain of the vessel … in order to take proper and effective action to avoid collision and stop within a distance appropriate for the prevailing circumstances,†the document said.

Witnesses said the Coast Guard boat was traveling at 30 to 40 mph at the time of the collision, said Michael Neil, a San Diego lawyer representing the victim’s family.

“Obviously he should not have been driving the boat as fast as he was driving it and in the manner in which he was operating it,†Neil said. “Speed must be safe in the circumstances, and you have to post a lookout. The oncoming boat has to give way if you are approaching the aft end of a boat.â€

Two boatswain’s mates were charged with negligent homicide, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty for allegedly failing to fulfill lookout duty. One was additionally charged with “negligently suffering a vessel to be hazarded†for allegedly failing to advise the coxswain to maintain a safe speed.

A 3rd-class machinery technician was charged with dereliction of duty, also for allegedly not performing his duty as a lookout. A fifth crewmember was not charged, said Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell.

The defendants’ attorneys could not be reached for comment.

“It’s clear that it wasn’t intentional. They just didn’t see (the pleasure boat),†Neil said. “They had no lookout posted.â€

Dewell said the accused will appear at an Article 32 investigation — an approximate military equivalent to a grand jury hearing — later this year to determine whether they should be court-martialed.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff