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Civil Liability From Wake Damage

On behalf of Sayer Regan & Thayer of Sayer Regan & Thayer, LLP posted on Tuesday, May 2, 2022.

If you own a boat, whether you use it on a lake, river or ocean, you know vessels in motion can cause a significant wake that can impact people, structures, and other boats. There are maritime rules that apply to vessels of all kinds and sizes, from small sailboats to large yachts and even personal water craft.

Generally, the owner or operator of a vessel that has caused injury to another vessel, structure or person could be held responsible for the damage caused by the boat's wake – usually in the form of a civil lawsuit. Anyone facing a civil lawsuit due to wake damage should have a lawyer behind them who is skilled in maritime law and civil law.

First, let’s define “wake.” This term refers to the recirculating flow of water located directly behind a moving vessel. That displacement of water creates waves that can radiate outward and endanger other boaters or structures. Wakes caused by motorized boating vessels can compromise other boaters and swimmers who may be sharing the same body of water.

Damage can happen in any circumstance. Passengers on smaller boats such as kayaks or personal watercraft, or water skiers, are at the highest risk because they can easily be thrown overboard or lose their balance. But even passengers on larger boats can be thrown overboard or knocked down with a big enough wake.

What the Law Says

State and federal law says that boat operators are responsible for their vessel’s wake and any damage or personal injuries that may arise as a direct result. When a boater’s negligence results in injury to another person, they may be held liable for compensation to cover anything from medical bills and lost wages to pain and suffering. They may also have to pay for damages to the boat caused by the wake, such as damaged hulls or items thrown overboard.

The injured party may bring a civil claim against both the operator and vessel owner, or against the offending vessel itself, in which case the vessel could be sold and the proceeds held as security for the injured party’s claim.

The injured party must be able to prove that the wake from another boat caused the injury or damage, and that their damaged vessel was properly moored against swells. The other party must prove that they were powerless to prevent the injury and damage by any practical precautions.

Some factors that come into play when considering operator negligence can include:

• Size of wake
• Speed of boat
• Visibility issues
• Boat traffic at the time
• If the operator warned passengers the boat was coming up on a wake
• If the injured person was on a smaller vessel
• Where the accident occurred, such as in an “idle speed, no wake zone” or a “slow speed, minimum wake zone”, etc.

Safety Tips When Approaching a Wake

Just like on the road, you have to drive a boat defensively, anticipating any circumstance that could arise that may cause harm to your boat or passengers. Here are some tips on how to safely cross the wake of another boat.

Alert your passengers: Tell your passengers when you see a wake coming so they can sit down and hold on securely.
Move away from the wake: If safe to do so, move away from the oncoming wake. The farther from it you are, the smaller the wake will be. Be aware of other boats in your immediate vicinity.
Slow down: Reduce your speed to create more of a cushioning effect, which will also prevent diving straight into the second wave.
Approach at a 45-degree angle: Rather than turn into the wake, head parallel to the other boat so you can roll over the wave rather than jump over it.

Contact Sayer Regan & Thayer for Maritime Law Assistance

Contact us today for your free initial consultation if your vessel has suffered wake damage or your passengers have been injured, or if your vessel was the one that caused injury or damage but you feel you were powerless to stop the events. Our attorneys have experience in all areas of maritime law, including maritime personal injury, boat collisions, and marine insurance claims.

These materials have been prepared by SRT for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

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