Accusations fly in wake of boat crash that killed Pepin Academies director

Published Dec. 6, 2018

TAMPA — Anti-DUI lawyer Tom Carey and beer distributor Tom Pepin are pointing fingers at each other in two federal court cases over an alcohol-related boat crash last year that killed a Tampa educator and seriously injured his daughter.

Craig Butz, 52, died Sept. 23 piloting Pepin's personal watercraft when it collided with Carey's 34-foot motor boat in Clearwater Harbor. State investigators blamed the crash on Butz's inattention and inexperience, and said his alcohol consumption was a contributing factor.

Carey now alleges that Pepin provided the alcohol and was negligent in entrusting the 11-foot Sea-Doo to Butz. Pepin "should have known that Butz was under the influence of alcohol and that his ability to operate the (Sea-Doo) was impaired," Carey's attorney, Ted Shinkle, wrote in a May 30 court document.

Butz's blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.15 percent, or nearly twice the level at which the state presumes motor vehicle drivers to be impaired. Before his death, he was executive director of Pepin Academies, a charter school program that has benefitted from Pepin's philanthropy.

Pepin's own claim, filed by attorney Eric Thiel, alleges neglect by Carey, saying he breached a duty to exercise reasonable care by failing to maintain proper lookout while operating his boat and failing to avoid a collision.

RELATED: Pepin Academies leader killed in boat crash, daughter injured

Carey and Pepin are not seeking damages from each other; rather, they individually are asking a judge to exonerate them from liability or at least limit their liability — and, if one of them is found liable, to make sure the other guy helps foot the bill.

Federal admiralty law restricts how much boat owners can be forced to pay — generally, no more than the post-loss value of the boat. That would be $3,000 in the case of Pepin's 2016 Sea-Doo and $275,000 in the case of Carey's 2018 Pursuit, according to estimates in the court files.

Pepin's attorney wrote that he filed in federal court in anticipation of claims by Butz's estate and minor daughter. The filing demands that Carey contribute to payment of any damages that Pepin might have to pay.

Pepin and Carey both denied negligence in response to each other's allegations.

Carey, in an interview, called the incident a "terrible tragedy." He is known for outspokenness against drunk driving, having lost his wife to an alcohol-related crash in 1983. He is a former state chairman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

RELATED: Investigators: Educator Craig Butz at fault in fatal boat crash

Neither Pepin nor his attorney responded to messages from the Tampa Bay Times.

Butz's widow, Tatum Murphy, referred inquiries to Natalie King, a former Pepin Distributing Co. employee and current Pepin consultant who also served as a spokeswoman for Murphy in the aftermath of the crash. King is vice president of RSA Consulting Group. She has also served as a spokeswoman for Pepin Academies and for the Pepin family.

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Her response suggests the court activity may all be for naught.

Murphy isn't planning to sue, King said.

"Grief, coupled with fear, coupled with all those other emotions, those are very powerful things the family is dealing with," King said. "That's not something you deal with in the courts. You deal with it at home."

Murphy doesn't blame Pepin for the accident, King said, and Pepin has not compensated Murphy for her loss. Murphy is focused on her daughter's recovery, King said.

"It will be lifelong," King said. "Brain injuries aren't something you recover from in a couple of weeks."

Teagan Butz was 4 when she and her father were thrown from the Sea-Doo. King said Teagan is getting the best medical care and is doing well. She calls her a "miracle child." King declined to say who paid for the care. Was it Pepin? No, she responded.

The deadline for the Butz family — or anyone —to file a claim against Carey came and went on May 15. On Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli signed an order of default noting the absence of a Butz claim.

The deadline for filing a claim against Pepin is June 18.

Butz and his family were staying at a home on Clearwater Beach linked to Pepin on the weekend of the crash, records show. Pepin's personal watercraft was moored there.

Butz and his daughter had been out on the Sea-Doo once, returned and went back out again, according to a report.

He accelerated east, away from the beach home, and then collided with the left side of the boat, as Carey traveled northwest in the channel.

The crash was investigated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Contact Patty Ryan at or (813) 226-3382.