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Recreational Boat Accidents and Liability

When the weather heats up across the United States, the waterways fill with recreational boaters. Boat operators crowd ponds, lakes, rivers, harbors, and seas. That includes sailors, rowers, swimmers, water-skiers, and other recreational boaters. They're all eager to take to the water for some fun in the sun.

Recreational boat accidents happen more often than you may imagine. The U.S. Coast Guard counted the following as a result of recreational boating accidents in 2020:

  • 5,265 accidents that involved 767 deaths
  • 3,191 injuries
  • About $62.5 million of damage to property

According to the United States Coast Guard, some of the leading causes of collisions and accidents include:

  • Operator inattention and improper lookout
  • Operator inexperience and excessive speed
  • Operating the boat in dangerous conditions
  • Boating under the influence (BUI).

Below is relevant information about recreational boat accidents and liability, including which laws apply to your case. Understanding boating safety may help prevent fatalities and guide you on where to go for legal help on a personal injury claim.

Recreational Boat Definition

When you hear the term "recreational boat," you might be unclear exactly what that means. Typically, a recreational vessel can mean any of the following watercraft:

  • Yachts, sailboats, personal watercraft (Jet Skis and WaveRunners)
  • Pontoons, kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes
  • Center-console runabouts, cabin cruisers, tenders
  • Inflatable and semi-rigid inflatable boats
  • Go-fast boats, airboats. and motorboats

Safety equipment, such as life jackets, is an important consideration in personal injury cases involving all kinds of vessels. But sometimes, no matter what precautions you take, someone's negligence can still cause a collision. Even when a boat passes inspection, an operator's negligent conduct, such as alcohol use, can cause serious boating accidents.

Who Is Responsible for a Boating Accident?

Typically, victims or their loved ones can sue the operator of the boat for negligence or wrongful death. That means the operator's carelessness caused injuries, property damage, or even death. The personal injury lawsuit will allege that the operator failed to exercise reasonable care to ensure safety. In most cases, the owner of the boat will likely have liability coverage available under a boat policy. The boat may also be covered under a homeowner's policy.

Any negligent party whose conduct leads to a boat accident case may be liable. Accident victims can even go after their own family members. Others responsible for boating accidents may include:

  • The owner of the boat
  • Boat manufacturer
  • Boat rental company
  • Other passengers who acted in a negligent or reckless manner

For example, a negligent defendant might throw someone in the water without a life vest, knowing the person cannot swim. In some cases, government agencies might be responsible. This could be because they misplaced warning buoys relating to shallow conditions or other dangers. Like regular motor vehicle or car accidents, the at-fault party can be responsible for tragedies as serious as brain injuries and fatalities.

Federal Maritime Law or State Tort Law?

Once you meet with an attorney, one of the first questions you may have is which boating laws will apply. Your personal injury case may involve federal or state laws or both. These matters are highly complicated and require a skilled legal professional to help determine where you should file your lawsuit.

A case will fall within federal admiralty jurisdiction and the general maritime law if it meets a "locality" test and a two-prong "nexus" test, including whether the injury happened on "navigable waterways." You can read more about this in our related article, Admiralty and Maritime Law Under the Constitution.

According to federal law, navigable waterways are those waters that:

  • "Are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used," or
  • “Have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce."

If the accident did not occur on navigable waterways, state laws will control your case, and you will file a personal injury lawsuit in a state court. Again, you should consult a personal injury lawyer about your situation to decide which law will apply to your claim.

Recreational Boat Accidents and Liability: Related Resources

Get Professional Help With Your Recreational Boat Accident Claim

A boat accident attorney can provide a helpful case evaluation, whether it's a pontoon or a sailboat accident. If you or a loved one has been the victim of a recreational boating accident, it's important to know your legal rights.

An experienced attorney, especially a boat accident lawyer, knows how to get compensation for your injuries and medical expenses. You can start the process today by contacting a personal injury attorney licensed in your state.

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