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On July 14, on Sylvan Lake in suburban Detroit, MI, three children were being pulled in a tube by their father driving a jet ski when another boat moving perpendicularly struck the tube.  The boat driver said he saw the personal watercraft, but not the tube.  The children were rushed to a nearby hospital where an eleven-year-old boy was pronounced dead; his two younger sisters, aged 10 and 6 were in critical condition.  The youngest sister died the next day, while the older sister continues fighting for her life.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said the father was towing the children without a passenger spotter, a requirement of Michigan law, but an investigation will determine if other factors may have played a role in this tragic accident.  It doesn’t appear at this time that the driver of the boat was under the influence of alcohol, but was he distracted?  Was he keeping a safe distance?  What were the movements of the boat and jet-ski prior to the accident?  One important factor is known: There was no marine patrol on Sylvan Lake.

Due to budget cuts in 2010, the sheriff’s office pulled patrols off the water and transitioned to a pay-for-patrol system for lakefront communities; the communities around Sylvan Lake have not paid for marine division patrols since the cut.  Lake-goers said that since the cutbacks there has been an increase in careless behavior on the water, such as boaters driving too fast, no spotters on boats pulling skiers and tubers, people cutting each other off and not following simple rules of the water to go counter-clockwise. All these negligent activities were minimized when there was marine patrol watching the waters and writing fines for violators.  “When your business is all public safety, there are no easy cuts,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard.  “When cuts had to be made, cutting patrols became the only option.”  Although declining property values have been a factor in slashing the budget, municipalities always had the option to contract for marine patrols; some communities opted for safety over cost; Sylvan Lake and others did not.  To those who thought that cutting patrols would not have a painful impact, let this family’s tragedy be a reminder how easily citizens can be affected from such cuts.

Maybe the father was negligent for not having a spotter; maybe the driver of the boat was distracted or driving recklessly and carelessly.  Maybe marine patrol would have prevented this tragedy and flagged either the jet-ski or boat for their respective misbehavior.  Maybe safety should have been considered before the 2010 budget cuts were made.  And, maybe the Sylvan Lake community should have rallied together to cover the cost of safety on the lake.  If so, two children would still be alive and another would not be fighting to live.

This tragedy has prompted Sylvan Lake officials to bring back marine patrols where the accident happened.  It is too little, too late for these children and their grief-struck father.  The patrols are expected to cost the city $400 to $500 per week; the mayor plans to reach out to neighboring communities that border the lake to see it they can help defray some of the cost.  Although the contract documents are not complete, Bouchard agreed to begin patrols this past weekend.

This tragic boating accident is a graphic reminder that, maybe, in a time of budget cutbacks and declining tax revenue, public safety should not be the first to go; it should always be a top priority.

Mark Bello has thirty-six years experience as a trial lawyer and fourteen years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by a plaintiff involved in pending, personal injury, litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Member of Public Justice, Public Citizen, the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

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