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Drinking and driving don’t mix

It seems hardly a day goes by that the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel or Miami Herald have a story about a drunk driving accident which causes serious injuries or death. You would think that will all the publicity surrounding drunk driving accidents, the educational classes we all go through in high school and college, and the increased awareness created by news stories about alcohol related accidents and deaths, that at some point the frequency of these types of accidents would start to decrease.

Yesterday, Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeals gave us another reason to avoid drinking and driving. The Court released its opinion in American Heritage Life Insurance Company v. Carmen Morales, 40 Fla. L. Weekly D250a, in which it upheld a provision in an insurance policy that excluded paying insurance benefits to the family of a person killed in a Miami Jet Ski accident.

The case arose out of a jet ski accident that occurred in Biscayne Bay near the Julia Tuttle Causeway. A jet ski is a small, usually one or two person watercrafts, powered by a water jet engine. Jet skis are similar to waverunners and a sea doo, and are capable of exceeding 60 miles per hour.

Javier Lopez was last seen alive at approximately 10:00 pm on July 31, 2011 when he left an island north of the Venetian Causeway in the Intracoastal Waterway. When he failed to return, the Coast Guard went looking for him. The jet ski was found near the Causeway at approximately 4:00 a.m., and Mr. Lopez’s body was found the next morning at approximately 7:45 a.m. on the other side of the Causeway. It was clear to the Coast Guard that Mr. Lopez and the jet ski had been involved in a front end collision caused by a combination of alcohol, operating the jet ski at night, and operating the jet ski in a reckless manner. A toxicology report indicated Mr. Lopez blood alcohol level was .10, which is above the legal limit of .08 in Florida. The investigator’s report concluded that Mr. Lopez’s accident was an “alcohol related case” and that “alcohol contributed to the accident”.

Mr. Lopez’s relative made a claim under his accidental death and dismemberment policy with the insurance company. However, the accident insurance policy has an exclusion that restricted payment of insurance benefits if the death was caused by an accident sustained “while under the influence of alcohol”. It was argued that because the investigator found 3 separate causes for the accident, and did not attribute the accident solely to alcohol, that the exclusion did not apply. The Court considered the issue of whether alcohol must be the sole cause of an accident, or just one factor in a boating accident death.

The Court held relied on a previous car accident death claim considered by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals which held that the alcohol exclusion will apply as long as there is some causal relationship between the death and the intoxication, even if other factors may contribute boating accident or car accident. This case just serves to re-emphasize that drinking and driving don’t mix. Whether it is a car accident or boat accident, the use of alcohol can cost you more than just a serious injury.

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