Boating Mishaps Harder to Investigate

By Ray Carbone Foster’s Sunday Citizen June 8, 2003

Investigators who probe boating accidents – such as the one that killed John Hartman on Lake Winnipesaukee last summer, for which a Meredith man is now being tried in Belknap Superior Court – face some special challenges.

They can include everything from a paucity of physical evidence to a delay in reporting accidents, which can make the process of gathering evidence harder.

But that doesn’t mean investigators can’t do the job of finding out how accidents occur and following through with appropriate legal action, said Capt. Mark Gallagher of the New Hampshire Marine Patrol in Glendale.

“There are still significant things to investigate in a boating accident, and ways to determine what happened,” Gallagher said.

“The cause of an accident is usually a series of events,” he added. “What we try to do is look at the factors that contributed to the cause of the collision.”

The factors could include everything from violating speed or traffic rules to the sobriety of the operators or the weather (and visibility), he said.

In the case of Daniel Littlefield of Meredith, authorities believe they had enough evidence to charge him with two counts of negligent homicide.

Littlefield, 38, is currently being tried in Laconia for his role in the death of Hartman, 69, a retired Bedford airline pilot who owned a summer home on Bear Island. Authorities say Littlefield was either intoxicated or inattentive when his 36-foot Baja rode up over the back of Hartman’s 20-foot Wellcraft, killing the man and injuring several other family members.

While not commenting on the current case, Gallagher said boat crash investigators get along without some of the things motor vehicle investigators have to work with.

“There are some evidentiary things – like skid marks on the road or debris from a vehicle – that is helpful on land that we don’t have the benefit of on the water,” he said.

For instance, boat investigators usually have to work in an area where there is no clearly defined traffic pattern.

“It’s certainly less organized,” Gallagher said. “You don’t have traffic patterns on the water so it’s kind of a blank canvas.”

In addition, there is no speed limits beyond 150 feet of another vessel or shoreline.

And state law gives boaters 48 hours to report accidents to the Marine Patrol if they believe the damages are less than $500. That could have been a factor in Littlefield’s case because he did not turn himself in to the Marine Patrol until the deadline was approaching, making any test for alcohol impairment irrelevant.

Authorities and Littlefield was with family and friends all day on Aug. 11, boating, drinking, and partying from noon until about 9 p.m. Witnesses said they saw him later at a local restaurant where he danced by himself and, later, slumped over a table with his head bobbing and eyes closed.

At about 9:30, Littlefield allegedly took his boat out onto Meredith Bay where, in the vicinity of the Grouse Point Club, he rammed Hartman’s boat. State experts estimate that Littlefield’s Baja was traveling about 25 miles per hour when the crash occurred.

The accident did not surprise Carolyn Latti, of Latti & Anderson, a Boston law firm that specializes in maritime law.

Latti, who has worked on several civil cases related to boating mishaps on Winnipesaukee, said alcohol abuse is frequently a factor in serious accidents on the water.

“The majority of them involve drinking,” she said. “It’s drinking or inexperience.”

One significant issue is that the “rules of the road” on the water are not as widely known – or observed – as the rules that govern vehicular traffic, she added.

“There are not a lot of rules and regulations but there are some,” Latti said. “But you don’t need to have a license to run a boat. And that’s the biggest problem. People are getting into boats thinking it’s so simple and easy. But some of these boats have motors that are overpowering and it takes a lot to control them.”