A casino shuttle boat caught fire Sunday in Florida, forcing the evacuation of dozens of passengers into the cold Gulf Coast waters. Officials initially stated that none of the evacuation injuries were life threatening. One passenger went home after the evacuation into frigid waters, where she later became ill. She arrived at the emergency room Sunday night about 10pm and died shortly thereafter. Cause of death has not been determined at the time of this writing.

The ferry was only about 100 yards from shore when the captain noticed smoke coming from the engine room. He turned the boat around and told the passengers and crew to abandon ship. About 15 passengers suffered injuries from smoke inhalation and the cold water.

According to this article, The Tropical Breeze Casino said they had never had an issue with the shuttle and have not yet determined the cause of the blaze. The boat is used to ferry passengers to and from the Tropical Breeze offshore casino. The casino is approximately 45 minutes offshore, in international waters.

This maritime accident could require investigation and inspection from a variety of experts in the lead up to probable litigation. Here are the types of experts I expect to be involved in the weeks and months ahead.

Fire Investigation:

The captain noticed smoke very early after leaving port and was able to turn the boat around and have the passengers evacuate while they were still in shallow waters. In this article from Yahoo News, “Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Michael De Nyse said investigators will determine the cause of the fire and examine the history of the boat and Tropical Breeze Casino.” This is what will probably be the initial fire investigation.

From the article it also sounds as though the Pasco County Sheriff will be conducting their own accident/fire investigation. Further cause and origin investigations can be expected from the insurance company for the Tropical Breeze Casino.

With 15 passengers injured and one deceased, I am assuming at least some of the injured parties will be filing a lawsuit. The lawyers for the injured parties will probably request their own inspection of the ferry, which was evidently burned down to the hull. In fact, plaintiff’s counsel will likely want additional experts, beyond fire investigators, to inspect the remainder of the vessel.

Forensic Engineers:

This post on Polymersolutions.com defines forensic engineering as follows, “…using reverse engineering to figure out why a structure, material or component failed to perform as intended. Then, those findings can be used as evidence in court if that failure caused injury, property damage, or was related to some other criminal case.”

From the information currently available, the fire originated in the engine room. If the engine itself caught fire, an engineer specializing in engine mechanics or naval engineering could be used to determine what caused the engine to fail and erupt in flames.

Such an engineer would inspect the components of the engine to determine which item may have failed. It is important to note, once the failed item is discovered, it may expand liability to the manufacturer of the failed component.

Maritime & Admiralty Safety Experts:

The news tells us the captain of the ferry noticed smoke coming from the engine room, so he turned the boat around and ordered the passengers to evacuate.

I expect a great deal of the investigation and approach to establishing liability will hinge on whether the captain followed the appropriate safety protocols for marine passenger safety.

Industries are governed by safety regulations and maritime is no different. A maritime expert will be asked to evaluate the actions of the captain, and other crew, to determine if they acted appropriately under the circumstances.

Did the captain or crew properly inspect the boat before leaving port? Did he order an evacuation too late? Could the captain have done something, before leaving port, that would have prevented the catastrophe? Was the evacuation properly executed? Did the captain follow maritime safety standards in abandoning ship and making sure passengers made it to shore?

Maritime Medicine / Emergency Medicine Experts:

A passenger presented to the emergency room and died a short while later. With this information, I expect both plaintiff and defense counsel to retain medical experts. Since the passenger was only treated at the ER before expiring, both sides will retain emergency medicine experts to review her ER records and possibly opine about whether or not she could have been saved had she presented to the ER sooner.

There is one type of expert both sides may not immediately consider: a maritime medicine expert witness. Although the boat was only 100 yards offshore and the passengers were in waist deep water, this was a maritime accident resulting in death.

It is quite possible that boating accidents taking take place in cold ocean waters require a specific medical response. Was the appropriate medical response utilized? Was there something that could have been done to prevent the death after rescue? Should the passenger have been released home or monitored for 24 hours? What appropriate actions should have been taken after an ocean-based rescue? These are questions for an expert with a long history of maritime lifesaving experience.

Other experts may be involved in litigation stemming from this accident, but these are the most likely types of experts I see being retained in this matter.

Posted by nickrishwain

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