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Recreational Boat Accidents and Liability

When the weather heats up across the United States, the waterways fill with recreational boaters. Ponds, lakes, rivers, harbors, and seas are crowded with sailors, rowers, swimmers, water skiers, and recreational boaters, all eager to take to the water for a little fun in the sun.

It is important to remember that recreational boat accidents happen more often than you may imagine. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard counted 5,265 accidents that involved 767 deaths, 3,191 injuries, and approximately $62.5 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents in 2020.

Some of the main causes of accidents include operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed, operating the boat in dangerous conditions, and boating under the influence (BUI).

Below you will find relevant information about recreational boat accidents and liability, including which laws apply to your case, and where to go for legal assistance.

Recreational Boat Definition

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

  • Yachts
  • Sailboats
  • Personal watercraft (jet skis and wave runners)
  • Pontoons
  • Kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes
  • Center console runabouts
  • Cabin cruisers
  • Tenders
  • Inflatable and semi-rigid inflatable boats
  • Go-Fast boats
  • Airboats

Who Is Responsible For a Boating Accident?

Typically, victims or their families may be able to sue the operator of the boat for negligence or for failure to provide reasonable safety. Most states allow family members to bring claims against other family members for negligence. In most cases, the owner of the boat will likely have liability coverage available under a boat policy or it may be covered under a homeowner's policy.

Others responsible for boating accidents may include the owner of the boat, manufacturing company, boat rental company, or other passengers who acted in a negligent or reckless manner such as throwing someone in the water without a life vest, knowing the person cannot swim. In some cases, government agencies might be responsible because they did not properly place warning buoys to warn of shallow conditions or other dangers.

Federal Maritime Law or State Tort Law?

Once you meet with an attorney, one of the first inquiries you may have is which law will apply to your case: federal or state. While these matters are highly complicated and require a skilled legal professional to help determine where you should file your lawsuit, basically speaking, 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 or not the injury occurred on "navigable waterways."

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 will be filed in a state court. Again, you should consult with an attorney regarding your specific situation to determine which law will be applicable to your claim and for a common-sense definition of navigable waterways.

Recreational Boat Accidents and Liability: Related Resources

Get Professional Help With Your Recreational Boat Accident Claim

Whether it's a pontoon or a sailboat, if you or someone you love has been the victim of a recreational boating accident, it's important to know your legal rights and how to go about getting compensation for your injuries. You can start the process today by contacting a personal injury attorney licensed in your state.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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