On behalf of Sayer Regan & Thayer of Sayer Regan & Thayer, LLP on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

A day on the water can be fun and relaxing. But any experienced boater can tell you that safety is a priority. Still, no matter how many hours you have at the helm, or how alert you are to danger, boating accidents do happen. A boating accident can cause costly damage or result in injuries. In case you are unfortunate enough to find yourself involved in a accident while afloat, you should know the basics about boating liability.

When a boating accident occurs, either on the water or at the dock, liability depends primarily on whether or not negligence caused the incident. Boat operators and passengers are expected to act with reasonable care. If it can be shown that the operator of a boat took actions that were careless or unreasonable, they are likely to be held liable for the resulting accident. An individual who is found responsible for causing an accident on the water or at the dock may be legally obligated to compensate victims of the accident for their injuries and financial losses.
Passengers are not immune from being found at fault. Reckless or careless behavior that causes an injury to themselves or others, or damage to the boat, may result in legal liability.

In a collision between two boats, both operators are often found to be partly liable. Much like the case of a vehicle accident on dry land, passengers who are injured may have a legal case against either or both operators. If a boat operator is injured, they may have a case against the other operator, but only if the injured party can show that they were less than fifty percent at fault for the collision.

Weather, Rocks and Shoals

However, proving negligence caused an accident is not always clear-cut. Weather plays a major part in many boating accidents. Sometimes this is a foreseeable risk and the operator should plan ahead to avoid dangerous conditions. But the weather can change quickly, and the risk is not necessarily foreseeable. For example, if a small boat were to encounter unexpected turbulence and hit a big wave, the jolt may toss unsecured or unprepared passengers around, causing injuries. Is the boat operator to blame? They may be, if it can be shown that they were operating at an unsafe speed, ignored weather warnings, or were negligent in their approach to navigating the choppy waters.

Similarly, while traversing boat wakes are a part of navigating often crowded waters, a wake that causes an accident after being created negligently through excessive speed in a “no wake” zone, or reckless maneuvering, may result in liability for the boat operator causing the wake.
Even if the weather is clear, submerged objects, shoals, and rocks can be impossible to see and avoid. However, this does not necessarily make the operator liable for any collision. Liability will depend on the circumstances and whether the operator’s actions were reasonable. 

Parents Beware

Since boating is frequently enjoyed as a family pursuit, parents should be aware they may be liable for negligent boating behavior by their minor children. “Negligent entrustment” is a legal doctrine by which a parent may be held liable for injuries caused by a dangerous instrument which their child used with permission. This is the case when a teen driver causes an accident with their parents’ vehicle and can also apply to teen boaters using the family’s watercraft.  

Whether your boat is large or small, federal and state boating safety laws and regulations require there to be various kinds of safety equipment on board. Though lack of equipment is unlikely to have caused the accident, failing to have proper safety gear can be deemed as negligent because it can leave victims without important protection, as well as impact rescue efforts.

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