Sarasota legislators file bills for 2021 legislative session that would require operators of boats less than 26 feet in length to wear engine safety cutoff devices

‘Ethan’s Law’ honors child who died after November 2020 Sarasota Youth Sailing incident, Rep. McFarland says

This is an engine cut-off switch lanyard. Photo by Tim Donovan of FWC via Flickr

On Feb. 17, state Rep. Fiona McFarland (R-Sarasota) filed a bill that would require any operator of a motorboat less than 26 feet in length to wear an engine safety cutoff device, which automatically would shut off the engine if the operator were thrown overboard.

Seven other states have similar laws in place, her staff noted in a news release.

Additionally, in January, when Congress overrode former President Donald Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, Congress included a provision in that bill that requires operators of boats 26 feet and smaller to attach “their lanyard kill switch or use their wireless lanyard if either is available on their vessels if they are on federal waters,” reported.

In December 2018, points out, a law was passed to require the installation of “kill switches” on new boats of 26 or less feet.

The federal “kill switch” law is expected to go into effect around April 1, noted.

That regulation imposes a civil penalty of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for any subsequent offense.

McFarland’s bill, called “Ethan’s Law,” honors the memory of Ethan Isaacs, a 10-year-old Sarasota boy who was fatally injured as a result of a Sarasota Youth Sailing program accident in November 2020.

On Feb. 23, state Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) filed Senate Bill 1562 as companion legislation, Florida Senate records show.

Ethan, who was a sixth-grader at Pine View School in Osprey, “was taking part in a youth club sailing practice when he was struck and killed by an unmanned motorboat in Sarasota Bay after the instructor lost his footing and fell overboard,” the McFarland news release explained. Ethan’s parents approached McFarland shortly after his death, the release continued. (McFarland was elected to the District 72 House seat on Nov. 3, 2020.)

“We are grateful for the opportunity to make a positive change to boating safety in the State of Florida in honor of our son Ethan Isaacs,” said Greg and Mindy Isaacs in the news release. “Ethan was an extremely gifted and kind boy with a full life ahead of him. His tragic death, which has caused our entire family a great deal of suffering, could have been prevented. It is our hope that Ethan’s Law will prevent future tragedies, save lives and make the Florida waterways safer for everyone,” the Isaacses added in the release.

State Rep. Fiona McFarland. Image from the Florida House website

McFarland has reported wide support for the bill, having worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), boat owners associations, boat manufacturers, and various other marine safety stakeholders when crafting the bill’s language, the release pointed out.

“Whenever there’s a tragedy, particularly when a young child dies, you always wonder what could have been done to prevent it from happening,” said McFarland in the release. “I’m honored to be working with the Issacs family to make the Florida waterways safer.”

“Florida regularly ranks as a top state in number of boating accidents and fatalities, according to recent government reports,” the release pointed out. Since 2015, 95 formal reports have been filed regarding accidents involving an operator who fell overboard, 79 of which resulted in an injury or death, the release added.

McFarland’s legislation would allow the FWC, county sheriff’s office personnel and marine safety officers on waterways to enforce Ethan’s Law, the release pointed out.

Ethan’s Law would not “apply to motorboats making way solely by the use of a trolling motor or to vessels with a main helm installed within an enclosed cabin,” the House bill says. “Trolling motor” refers to a self-contained unit with an electric motor, a propeller and controls that is affixed to a vessel’s bow or stern “and which is used to move the vessel,” the bill explains.

Anyone violating the law who causes damage to another person’s property or causes an injury less severe than a serious bodily injury, as defined in another state law, would be guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor, the bill continues.

If someone who violated the law caused serious bodily injury to another person, as defined in the Florida Statutes, that boat operator would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, the bill adds.

Finally, if an individual violating the law caused a death, the person would be guilty of vessel homicide, as defined in another section of state law, the bill points out.

Florida Statute 782.072 defines “vessel homicide” as “the killing of a human being by the operation of a vessel as defined in [Florida Statute 327.02] by another in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of, or great bodily harm, to another.” Vessel homicide is a felony.

That section of state law “does not require that the person knew that the accident resulted in injury or death,” it says.

If Ethan’s Law wins legislative approval, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the bill, the law would take effect on July 1, the Florida House notes.

The Sarasota Youth Sailing program incident

On Nov. 21, 2020, FWC officers were notified that an unmanned powerboat had struck several 8-foot sailboats, as members of the Sarasota Youth Sailing program were conducting practice in Sarasota Bay, FWC reported. The state agency subsequently identified 18-year-old Riley Baugh of Bradenton as the operator of the motorized vehicle that reportedly struck Ethan Isaacs.

Riley Baugh is shown in a Sarasota Youth Sailing post on Facebook. Image from the club’s Facebook page

A May Sarasota Youth Sailing (SYS) “Senior Spotlight!” post on the program’s Facebook page featured Baugh, who was quoted as saying, “For the past 4 years, Sarasota Youth Sailing has been a second home for me.” The Sarasota News Leaderalso found online links to SYS information indicating that Baugh was a coach for beginning youth sailors.

In a statement released on Nov. 25, 2021, FWC reported that, based on preliminary information it had received from witnesses, the operator of a 20-foot powerboat involved in the sailing practice was assisting a child “who was experiencing issues with his vessel.” During that process, the statement added, the powerboat operator “lost his footing and fell, resulting in the vessel being activated into gear and the operator being thrown from the vessel.”

A boater on the water near the Ringling Causeway Bridge, who called 911 Dispatch, reported that Ethan appeared to have been struck by the propeller of the motorized vessel. The caller added that the child was wearing a lifejacket and that it looked as though the child’s boat had capsized.

The caller and at least one other person on that vessel, who also spoke with the dispatcher, indicated the child was bleeding from his head and back and that people on her boat were able to get him on board until a rescue unit arrived on the scene.

The autopsy report on the child, which the News Leader obtained from the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office through a public records request, says Ethan died from “Multiple Blunt Force Trauma Associated with Drowning.”

It was signed on Dec. 21, 2020 by Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie J. Rao.

Fractures of the skull, the upper right arm, the right side of the jaw, and both the left tibia and fibula were documented, the report pointed out.

This illustration shows the occipital area of the skull, shaded in green. Image by Anatomography via Wikimedia Commons

A 3.5-centimeter laceration was observed above the child’s right eyebrow, along with an 8-centimeter laceration on the right occipital area of the scalp. “Abundant hemorrhage” surrounded the later cut, the report added

Further, a 7-centimeter cut was found through the right buttock, along with six “horizontal parallel deep lacerations” through the back of the left thigh, “extending to the left buttock and posteriorly to the left thigh,” the report said.

Additionally, lacerated skeletal muscles in the lower left leg were associated with “abundant hemorrhage,” it added.

Two deep lacerations extended “to almost encircle the left leg beneath the left knee,” the report noted.

The report also described numerous abrasions.

Ethan was 4 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed 74 pounds, the report said.