Boat accident victim plans lawsuit

Rockford resident and boat enthusiast Mark Mercer plans to file a lawsuit against the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department in response to a July 24 boat accident on the Rock River.

According to Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Kurt Ditzler, Mercer’s boat and the Sheriff’s Department patrol vessel collided after the police boat hit a wake and could not stop because a “plastic protection bumper” obstructed the vehicle’s throttle control from reversing direction to avoid the collision.

Mercer said during the collision, the Sheriff’s boat went approximately “five to six feet” over the back end of his boat, which caused minor injuries to himself, and “thousands” of dollars of damage to his vessel. He speculated that had passengers been sitting in the rear of his vehicle, they may have been injured or perhaps killed.

Although he has not yet retained an attorney, Mercer said he plans to sue the Sheriff’s Department and the County for damage to his boat, and the injuries he sustained.

According to Mercer, the collision took place when his boat was traveling near the Rockford Ski Broncs water-ski area at Shorewood Park where the Ski Broncs hosted an event July 24. Mercer said he was following other boats into a channel of the river when he throttled down and was overcome by the police boat.

Ditzler said Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Bannister was enforcing a “No Wake Zone” to protect the skiers, and was operating the police boat at the time of the collision. He added Bannister was attempting to warn Mercer to slow down at the time of the accident.

Mercer said as he entered the water-ski area, a No Wake Zone sign affixed to an anchored barge, was not observable to boat operators because the floating barge and sign had rotated. However, Mercer said he slowed his vessel after following the lead of boat operators in front of him.

Mercer estimated two seconds elapsed between the time he slowed his boat in the No Wake Zone, to the time of the collision with the Sheriff’s vessel.

Ditzler referred other questions of the incident to his official report, which was not available for inspection by time of publication, despite a Freedom of Information Act request for the document on July 28, and a plea to Ditzler for expedited compliance.

Legally, the County has 10 working days to comply with the request. However, media requests are usually expedited for timely public disclosure.

Mercer questioned whether the Sheriff’s Department could conduct an objective investigation of the accident. He urged an independent agency such as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to investigate the collision.

Department of Natural Resources law enforcement Captain Greg Hunter said, if asked by the Sheriff’s Department, his agency would investigate the accident. However, he said his agency is not required to conduct such an investigation. Hunter added the DNR has a policy that states if a DNR officer is involved in a motor vehicle accident, his department asks another police agency to investigate the incident.

Hunter said a special event permit was issued for the water ski show, which allowed enforcement of the temporary No Wake Zone.

Ditzler said he does not plan on asking another police agency to investigate the incident.

By law, the boating accidents involving injury, death or damage of $500 or more must be reported to the DNR within five days.

Ditzler was not available to comment on whether the accident report was submitted to the DNR. Gail Simpson, spokesman for the DNR, said personnel who could confirm whether the Sheriff’s Department filed the report were not available by time of publication.

From the Aug. 3-9, 2005, issue

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