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Is Suing for a Boating Accident the Same as a Car Accident?

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September 17, 2021

Injuries from a boating accident can be very serious, even fatal. The laws that govern boats are much less restrictive than those for cars and trucks. People with little or no training can drive speed boats through crowded waters, causing very dangerous conditions. States differ on the type of licensing and education boaters need, and on the minimum age to operate a boat. 

Injuries from a boating accident can be very serious, even fatal. The laws that govern boats are much less restrictive than those for cars and trucks. People with little or no training can drive speed boats through crowded waters, causing very dangerous conditions. States differ on the type of licensing and education boaters need, and on the minimum age to operate a boat. 

A claim for injuries in a boating accident is a personal injury claim and is similar to a claim for injuries in a car accident. Whether in a car or a boat, the victim must prove that their injuries were caused by the negligence of another person in order to have a successful personal injury claim. As in a car accident case, a boating accident victim is entitled to compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering caused by the defendant’s negligence.

Two major differences between boating cases and car accidents are:

  • Who is liable
  • Which law applies

Negligence

Before we look at how boating claims differ from vehicle claims, let’s look at the legal definition of negligence. If you were injured in a boating accident and believe that your injury was due to another person’s negligence, you may have a personal injury claim. To succeed in that claim, you must demonstrate:

  • Duty of care
  • Breach of duty
  • Causation
  • Damages

Duty of Care

What is a duty of care? Simply put, it is an obligation one party has to another. In a personal injury case, the first thing to prove is that the defendant had a duty to behave in a certain way toward the plaintiff. For example, just as all motorists owe each other a duty of care to operate their vehicles safely, so do boat operators owe each other that same duty of care. Boat manufacturers owe a duty of care to sell safe products and to warn of any dangers. Charter companies owe a duty to their customers to ensure the vessel is in a safe and seaworthy condition and is safely operated. 

Breach of Duty

If you establish that the defendant owed you a duty of care, the next step is to demonstrate that by failing to behave reasonably, they breached that duty, endangering you.  

Examples of a breached duty of care include boat or boat part manufacturers who sell dangerously defective products, boat operators who drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a charter company who fails to check the credentials of its crew or fails to maintain its boats in a safe condition. 

Another way that a duty of care can be breached in a boating accident is by failing to have the proper safety equipment onboard, like life jackets, flotation devices, and fire extinguishers. 

Causation

Having established that the defendant owed you a duty of care and breached that duty, you must next show that the breach of this duty is what caused your injury. 

To have a successful claim, you can demonstrate that the defendant’s breach of their duty of care actually caused your injury, or that it was the proximate cause of your injury. 

Proximate cause means that your injuries are reasonably related to the defendant's breached duty of care, while actual cause means that, were it not for the breach of duty of care, you would not have been injured.

In a boating accident, if a reckless operator runs into your boat, and you fall and are injured as a result, their actions are the actual cause of your injury. If a large, powerful vessel is traveling too fast, causing displacement waves, and those waves cause you to fall and be injured, the action of speeding could be the proximate cause of your injury. 

Damages

Establishing that the defendant had a duty of care, they breached that duty, and the breach caused your injuries is not enough to prevail in a negligence claim. Even if all of that is true, to receive compensation the plaintiff must show that they suffered real injuries as a result.  

To prove damages, the plaintiff will need to present evidence demonstrating the type and extent of their injuries such as medical records and bills, and receipts for other out-of-pocket costs. A lack of documented evidence will make negotiating a settlement extremely difficult, if not impossible. An experienced personal injury attorney can advise clients on what types of documents and evidence will be most effective in their case.

How Boating Cases are Different

Duty, breach, causation, and damages apply to all personal injury cases, including boating cases. Two major differences between boating cases and car accidents are who can be found liable, and which laws apply. 

Who is legally liable?

Some parties who may be liable in a boating accident include:

  • Boat operator or passenger
  • Boat owner
  • Charter company
  • Boat manufacturer

Boat operator or boat passenger

Just as in a car accident, boating accidents can be caused by the negligence of other people. An operator who fails to obey basic rules of maritime safety could be found negligent, as could a passenger who behaved recklessly, for example by pushing someone off the boat.

Boat owner

If the injury was caused by the unsafe condition of the boat, the owner may be liable, even if the owner wasn’t present at the time of the accident. An owner owes an ordinary duty of care to passengers if they are not charging use of the boat. However, an owner of a boat used for hire has a duty of the highest degree of care and can be held liable for even the slightest negligence.

Charter company

If you were injured while on a charter boat, the charter company may be liable. Charter boats are boats that are rented either without a crew (bareboat) or with a crew (full-service charter.) 

In a full-service charter, the owner, captain, and crew are responsible for making sure the vessel is in a safe and seaworthy condition, and safely operated, and could be liable for damages if it is not. 

In a bareboat charter, the owner of the charter may be liable if the vessel is in an unsafe condition, and anyone operating the boat may be liable if their negligent behavior caused injury or damage. 

Manufacturer

Manufacturers of boats and boat parts have a legal responsibility to ensure that their products are properly designed, tested, and manufactured without any defects or unsafe conditions. 

If a boat collision was caused by a defective part, the injured person may be able to bring a claim against the manufacturer.

Which law governs?

The laws on waterways are very different from those on the road and often involve state and federal regulations. Also, different authorities are involved when an accident happens. 

Navigable waters are waters that are being used or capable of being used in interstate commerce. If an accident occurs on navigable waters, then federal law will likely apply. If a lake or body of water is solely inside a state’s borders, then it will most likely not be considered navigable water.

State boating laws apply to, and protect, both residents and non-residents using that state’s waterways. Nonresidents may bring a legal claim if they suffer damage in a boating accident. Residents and nonresidents must also comply with, and benefit from the protection of the state’s boating laws, such as having a USCG-approved life jacket and completing a boating safety education course before operating a motorized watercraft.

It is important to understand the applicable laws and be familiar with the agencies involved to be successful in a boating accident claim. 

Maritime Workers

If you are involved in an accident and injured while working on the water, you may be entitled to compensation by the federal laws that provide a type of workers’ compensation to maritime workers (the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Act and the Jones Act). 

Your employer or their insurance company may pursue a claim against the at-fault boat operator but it will depend on the individual circumstances of your case. This is a complex scenario that requires the advice of an experienced lawyer to ensure that the proper parties are held accountable for their fault and that you get all the compensation that you need and deserve.

The attorneys at Morris James can help guide you, and stand up for you and your legal rights after you have suffered injuries or damage in a boating accident. Contact one of our experienced team at your local Morris James office or using our online contact form today.

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