Friday, April 3, 2009
Court Reinstates Felony Charges Over Fatal Boating Accident
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday reinstated felony drunken boating charges against a Sonoma County man whose friend was struck and killed after jumping off the back of a vessel the man was operating in reverse.
Reasoning that William Russell Dawson should have foreseen that his friend would end up in the water near the propeller, Div. Two ruled a magistrate misapplied the law of causation when he declined to hold Dawson over for trial based on the friend’s intervening act.
Dawson, then 25, was charged with vessel manslaughter while intoxicated and a similar bodily injury charge over the May 2007 incident on Lake Sonoma in which Mark Spier, 51, fell off the back of a Mastercraft ski boat and became stuck in its propeller, dying instantly.
The two men had spent the afternoon on the lake drinking with friends, and Dawson was charged with the two felonies and three misdemeanors after a test registered his blood alcohol content at 0.14.
At the time of the incident, Dawson was attempting to reposition the boat so it would not drift to shore when Spier, who witnesses said had become increasingly agitated in his requests to go water skiing, reportedly said “f— it” and jumped in the water.
Members of the group said Spier had entered the water about 15 minutes earlier to water ski with a beer stashed in his life vest, but had been unable to get the ski on and had reentered the boat.
They also said Spier repeatedly ignored instructions to calm down, and that Dawson took the wheel when the group’s designated driver got up to locate waterskiing equipment for Spier.
However, they disputed a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy’s testimony that they told him Spier had been sitting on the boat’s back swim step, and Dawson argued at a preliminary hearing on the felony charges that Spier’s own conduct—not Dawson’s—had led to the death.
The magistrate agreed that Dawson was not the proximate cause of Spier’s death and dismissed the charges, and Sonoma Superior Court Judge Rene Auguste Chouteau denied a motion to reinstate, opining that the magistrate’s determination was a binding factual finding.
On appeal, prosecutors argued the magistrate had found that Spier was on the swim step, while Dawson contended the magistrate had found precisely the opposite.
But Justice James A. Richman wrote that the magistrate’s ruling contained no express statement of findings, and observed that the magistrate’s comments appeared to support the prosecution’s position.
The justice also opined that the magistrate had failed to apply the proper law of causation as set forth by the First District’s Div. Three in People v. Brady (2005) 129 Cal.App.4th 1314. The magistrate, Richman said, examined Spier’s act as an intervening cause, but failed to determine whether the actual harm Dawson caused was nonetheless foreseeable.
Citing Brady, he wrote:
“The foreseeability required is of the risk of harm, not of the particular intervening act. In other words, the defendant may be liable if his or her conduct was ‘a substantial factor’ in bringing about the harm, though the defendant neither foresaw nor should have foreseen the extent of the harm or the manner in which it occurred.”
Noting Spier’s intoxication, his belligerence and reluctance to follow safety instructions, and his continued insistence on waterskiing, Richman said that it was “eminently foreseeable that Spier would again enter the water” near the propeller, and that Dawson, as “captain of the ship,” bore “concomitant responsibility to those on board, even if—indeed particularly if—they were intoxicated.”
The justice also rejected Dawson’s claims that he could not have done more to ensure Spier’s safety “[s]hort of…clapping Spier in irons and confining [him] to an improvised brig somewhere on the ski boat.”
“Whether Dawson is in fact guilty is a subject for another day. What we hold is that it was error for the magistrate to refuse to hold Dawson to answer—and error for the superior court not to reinstate the charges.”
Justices Paul R. Haerle and James R. Lambden joined Richman in his opinion.
The case is People v. Dawson, A120628.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company