[Fox News] 15-year-old Florida girl’s wakeboarding death opens lid on state’s lax lagoon laws

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The death of 15-year-old ballerina Ella Riley Adler, who was struck and killed by an oncoming vessel after she lost hold of a tow-rope while wakeboarding in Florida last week, has brought the disparity in punishments between hit-and-run incidents on the road and at sea to light. 

Last week, Carlos Guillermo Alonso, 78, owner of the 42-foot Boston Whaler, hit the teen on the afternoon of May 11 near Key Biscayne, according to an incident report provided by Fox News Digital by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Adler and another teen had been wakeboarding — a water sport similar to waterskiing, but involving a single board strapped to the feet — behind another 42-foot boat with 11 occupants onboard. Both youths lost grip of their tow-ropes at different times, the agency said, and their boat was circling around to retrieve them from the water when solo-boater Alonso hit Adler and jetted away without stopping. 

It is unclear whether Alonso was speeding or flouting regulations — his attorney, Lauren Field Krasnoff, said her client was an experienced boater of 50 years that did not drink. However, a box indicating whether alcohol was involved in the crash is marked “unknown” on the agency’s report.

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“If his boat was involved, I can tell you he had absolutely no idea that that is what happened that day. He is as devastated as anybody could be,” she told NBC6

Krasnoff later told CBS News, “When the police came knocking, he did not know why.”

Alonso’s boat was seized at his Coral Gables home and impounded pending further investigation, the agency said. Currently, no criminal charges have been lodged against him. 

Miami-Dade Commissioner Raquel Regalado told Fox News Digital that she will push for harsher penalties for hit-and-run boaters in light of the incident. 

Per Florida law, drivers on the roadway can be sentenced to anywhere between 60 days and 30 years in prison, depending on whether the incident is determined to be a third, second or first-degree felony. A statute developed in 2014 made accidents an automatic second-degree felony at minimum if the driver leaves the scene, Regalado said.

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But on the water, Maritime attorneys told Fox News Digital, there is a maximum sentence of five years for hit-and-run boating accidents involving personal injury or death. 

“This is the first case that I know of where [the driver] left — normally, people stay and provide some kind of assistance,” Regalado told Fox News Digital. “We have more boating [after] the pandemic and a lot of traffic coming in and out of the bay — regulations should mirror [those on the road]. I think it makes perfect sense … It happens every few years, unfortunately, and there’s a lot of press when it occurs, but our opinion has been that one death is one too many.”

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But Florida Maritime Attorney James Perry told Fox News Digital that he handles a case involving a boat and a significant injury or death approximately every six weeks.

Florida Attorney Mark Eiglarsh told Fox News Digital that it “doesn’t make any sense that we have a statute” enhancing sentencing in Florida hit-and-run accidents on land when a boat is “vessel where there is more damage and no one to help them if they’re hurt.”

“There is a disconnect,” he said. “If anything, it should be the reverse. Usually when you get hit by the road, you have people coming by. [But] if someone gets hit in the water, they’re done — they need to be attended to right away.”

Perry said that law enforcement would need to prove that Alonso knew he hit someone to press criminal charges. Both the Coast Guard and the State of Florida have reporting requirements for accidents in the water. Under state and international statutes, he said, there is “an obligation to help anyone who’s in trouble on the water,” regardless of whether you or your vessel were involved in an accident.

But, after watching news coverage of the accident and hearing from sources close to both parties, Perry said he “didn’t see anything to lend credence to the fact that he tried to clean his boat or stopped his boat and then kept going.”

However, he told Fox News Digital, it is likely that Adler’s death will “undoubtedly” lead to a civil lawsuit, regardless of whether criminal charges are filed. 

Attorneys would need to prove that the driver was acting negligently — by not having a proper lookout while he drove or by speeding — to prove that Alonso is liable. 

But conversely, the driver of the boat Adler came in would also be subject to scrutiny in civil court. Both attorneys said that the area of Biscayne Bay where the accident happened, about one mile west of Mashta Point, isn’t ideal for watersports due to the heavy traffic and high winds in the area. 

“Where this occurred is a busy area, I’m not sure it would be an overly smart area to be waterskiing. It’s a popular anchorage area where a lot of boats would flock to on the weekend,” Perry said. “There are [other] spots in Miami where we know there’s less traffic and less wind.” 

Whether proper safety equipment was on board will also be taken into account. Adler was wearing a brightly colored life vest when she was hit. 

Regalado also noted that boaters must take a boater safety course and hold an ID card showing that it was completed in Florida — unless the driver was born in 1988 or earlier. It may be a good idea to have all drivers take the course uniformly, she said.

“The idea was that it’s younger people that are reckless,” Regalado said. “They wanted to draw a line in the sand and say ‘Moving forward, everyone has to take a safety course.’”

Regalado said that several foundations, all created by families who have lost their children in boating accidents, have launched a safety initiative in light of Adler’s death. 

“I would say that everyone has to step up to the plate for the pain that all these families are enduring and with their lifelong pain,” Alex Alvarez, whose 18-year-old son Lucas was killed in a February 2020 boating accident, told CBS Miami. “Just pay attention and be responsible and if you are a parent of a young adult and your child has a watercraft, you have to be ready for the next step.”

“Just hopefully before someone gets behind a wheel someone will have the sense of responsibility and obligation,” Alvarez added. “Once you get in the bay all bets are off with everyone going all sorts of speeds.”

Last week, the South Florida Boat Show’s “Beacon Light and Sea” safety initiative was announced by Nelson Albareda, the CEO of the Loud and Live Foundation, CBS reported. 

“We are going to meet with policymakers and community leaders and have meetings over the next few months to come together with a unified message,” Albareda said. “We are going to go to local high schools and educate students on boating safety. Through educational programs and community outreach, we will be actively engaging with boaters of all ages and that is aimed at elevating awareness and having the best practices that can save lives.”

The FWC told Fox News Digital that their investigation is still ongoing. Alonso’s attorney could not be reached for comment at press time.

Last week, Adler’s family released a second statement since their daughter’s death. 

“The Adler family is grateful for the overwhelming love and support they have received from across the country. Ella had a big, beautiful spirit that touched so many people,” the family said. “Our hearts are broken as we long for the everyday joys of being with Ella — the carpooling, the dance practices, the background hum of Taylor Swift songs and the Starbucks refreshers. Our greatest comfort now is seeing the amplification of Ella’s goodness and grace, and the flood of messages of how she was loved and will be remembered. We miss her terribly and our hearts remain with her today and always. We have complete confidence in our law enforcement personnel and we will not be commenting on the pending criminal investigation.”

Adler was a student at Ransom Everglades School, a private school with a nearly $50,000-per-year price tag, and a member of its dance team. The high-school freshman had been cast in “The Nutcracker” and had appeared in more than 100 performances with the Miami City Ballet at the Adrienne Arsht Center, according to her obituary. 

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