The United States Coast Guard defines a “boating accident” as a situation where a boat passenger dies or becomes seriously injured, a boat passenger disappears and death or injury is suspected, or a vessel causes or sustains damage. Boating accidents are therefore not limited to collisions, but may occur whenever someone is killed, injured, or disappears while boating.
Obviously, just as with car accidents, a number of different factors commonly cause boating accidents. For example, over one third of all boating accidents involve a driver who is under the influence of alcohol. All states have criminalized boating under the influence (BUI) and often impose heavy fines on or incarcerate those convicted of such an offense, but many people remain unaware of these laws. If you or whoever is piloting the boat may be under the influence, the best bet is not to go boating. If it is too late and someone has already been injured, intoxication can lead to strict liability in some jurisdictions, meaning even if the accident was not the fault of the intoxicated person from a factual sense, from a legal sense liability will be applied to that person. In other jurisdictions that do not use the strict liability approach, it may still be seen as a contributing factor for purposes of liability.
Severe weather, such as strong winds or heavy rains also cause a significant number of boating accidents. Sailors may experience difficulty in properly navigating and avoiding collisions, or in keeping a boat upright and afloat under certain weather conditions. Furthermore, lightning strikes may electrocute passengers or damage the boat or on-board electrical equipment. If bad weather is approaching, it is best and most reasonable to get off the water as soon as possible. If someone is injured because you opted to head out on the water in a storm or failed to head back to land when you became aware of the storm, this negligence could lead to civil liability. Extreme exposure to sunlight may also cause boat passengers to suffer heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses, so be sure to have a means of blocking direct sunlight if you plan to be out on the water for a long period of time.
Boat engines produce toxic carbon monoxide, which may cause death or serious injury if passengers are exposed to high concentrations of the gas. A malfunctioning boat engine could expose passengers to increased levels of toxic fumes and result in serious injuries or even death. Even a properly functioning engine could poison passengers if fumes are unable to escape for some reason. So, make sure the vessel is properly maintained and if you see a problem, head back to shore and get it fixed as soon as possible. Doing otherwise could result in liability for someone’s injuries.
Finally, accidents often occur when inexperienced boaters encounter dangerous or unfamiliar conditions. Boating accidents may be reduced by following the safety guidelines set forth by the United States Coast Guard, local signage, or other authorities. Failing to heed warnings around bridges, docks, etc. could result in damage to people and property, and failing to take direction from the Coast Guard could result in arrest and seizure of the boat.
So it is too late, and someone has already been injured. Who is responsible?
Generally, just as in a car accident, persons are at fault for a boating accident if they act negligently. Persons acts negligently if they fail to conduct themselves as a reasonable person under similar circumstances. A reasonable boater would typically adhere to all safety rules and precautions and be mindful of passengers and other boaters. As described above, that means following directions, observing signs, maintaining your boat, paying attention to the weather, and never piloting a boat while intoxicated.
While most of the liability we have discussed has been civil (i.e., the consequence is the paying of money), persons who cause boating accidents may also face criminal liability. Victims of a boating accident may sue another boater for property damage, medical expenses, and other losses they have incurred as a result of the incident. Additionally, the state may bring criminal charges against a boater if the driver caused an accident while intoxicated or operated their vessel recklessly or with gross negligence.
Just as with a car accident, if someone in another boat caused the accident, they may be liable. Similarly, if someone on your own boat caused the accident, whether the person steering the boat or someone interfering with that person, they may be liable. The rules of liability are generally the same as they are on land, with the variation that some accidents can be caused without directly touching another boat, such as creating a dangerous wake that causes another vessel to capsize, etc.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the boat operator must file an accident report when a boating accident occurs that causes significant personal injury or property damage. In practice, especially on smaller bodies of water, this often does not occur, so you may need to take it upon yourself to contact local authorities and ensure that the accident is properly reported in order to best establish your case against the responsible party.
The exact circumstances under which a report must be filed varies between states. The accident report must be submitted to either the applicable state agency regulating boats, the United States Coast Guard, or both. In some instances, it may just be the local police authority. In any event, if personal injuries or death result from the accident, the report must be filed within 48 hours of the accident, possibly sooner. If the accident caused only property damage, the report must usually be filed within 10 days of the accident. Failure to report the accident is a crime, and if you are the person who was injured it may create additional methods of recovering for your injuries.
In some areas, insurance is required for boat owners just as with cars, but not every jurisdiction has this requirement. When possible, find out whether the boat owner has any insurance as this may fund any settlement or judgment you obtain against the boat owner. Also, if someone other than the boat’s owner was piloting the vessel, they may also be liable, and if they have insurance of their own, it may also contribute to your settlement or judgment.
Because boating laws vary from state to state and sometimes even within the state, it is important to know exactly what your rights are and what you need to do to recover for your damaged property or personal injuries. For that reason, it would be most wise to contact a local, qualified, and experienced attorney to assist you with your claim.