Who is Liable for a Recreational Boating Accident?

Summer is the season when boating is most popular. Every year, 70 million Americans participate in recreational boating. Today, there are more than 12 million boats registered in the U.S. Unfortunately, over 4,000 recreational boating accidents happen each year, causing more than 700 fatalities. It is a challenge to maintain safety and avoid accidents with the growing number of recreational boats in the water.

When serious accidents happen, it is important to understand the obligations that various parties have to ensure boating safety. If these obligations have been violated, there is recourse to recover costs for injuries or deaths due to boating accidents. The law on liability for maritime accidents is significantly different from general tort law and knowing the difference matters.

What is a Recreational Boat?

Recreational boats come in all shapes and sizes. Smaller vessels include kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, and canoes. These generally carry one to two people. Larger-scale motorized crafts include motorboats, speedboats, runabouts, and cabin cruisers, which usually accommodate a few passengers. The largest recreational boats are motorized yachts. These can be very large and carry quite a few passengers. However, private yachts that carry more than 12 passengers are now considered commercial boats.

Is a License Required to Operate a Recreational Boat?

Regulations of recreational boating are matters of shared responsibilities with the general oversight of the United States Coast Guard (USCG). In 1971, Congress authorized the USCG to encourage uniformity among states and established a program to promote boating safety education and enforcement activities at the state level. The program seeks to increase the number of boaters who have the boating education, skills, and training needed to meet federal regulatory requirements. It also seeks to establish universally accepted best practices and standards.

States are able to supplement federal requirements. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) sets education standards and evaluates and approves recreational boating safety courses. In New Jersey, a boating license and a New Jersey Boat Safety Certificate are required to operate a powered vessel or watercraft on non-tidal waters.

Boating Safety Requirements

All boaters are expected to know and follow universal navigational rules that address different water bodies and vary in requirements. Boat operators are expected to have a working knowledge of the rules that apply. Requirements include how to interact with other boats in the vicinity when crossing the path of another vessel, overtaking another vessel, or other similar situations.

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) generally apply. The National Ocean Service charts a demarcation line so that 72 COLREGS apply outside the line at sea, and the Inland Navigation Rules apply inside the line and apply to harbors, rivers, and inland waters. All of the rules cover the following:

  • Right-of-way: The regulations establish a pecking order to determine which vessel has the right-of-way. Those lower in the pecking order must yield to another vessel.
  • Safety speeds: How fast a boat is driven must be safe under the circumstances and will vary with traffic congestion, weather conditions, obstructions, and restricted passages.
  • Proper lookout: This varies with the type of boat and equipment on board but must be adequate to identify a possible collision and avoid it, if possible.

What Safety Equipment Must be on Board?

Adequate life-saving equipment must be on board, such as a USCG-approved wearable life jacket for each person on the boat. For larger boats greater than 16 feet long, a USCG-approved throwable device must also be on board. In an accident, life-saving equipment is vital. Boats must also be operated within their capacity limits. These are usually printed on a plaque on the boat. The owner’s manual also specifies the maximum safe passenger count and weight capacity.

How Do Boating Accidents Normally Occur?

Ironically, most boating accidents happen when visibility is good, winds are light, and the water is calm. The vast majority of accidents are caused by human error, which involve colliding with another boat. Other common accidents happen when a boat is capsized by a wave or the wake of another boat. Additionally, a number of accidents occur when boats hit a fixed object, such as a buoy, sandbar, or dock.

How is Liability Determined?

The legal basis for liability in boating accidents is based on negligence. For boating accidents, negligence can be shown if a boat operator failed to operate the boat in a reasonably safe manner and caused an injury to the plaintiff. Violation of any of the requirements mentioned above can be grounds for establishing liability. Boat operators owe a reasonable duty of care to their passengers. This includes a duty to exercise prudence against impending perils. Operators, including the captain and crew, have been shown to violate this duty in the following instances:

  • Carrying too many passengers or too much weight
  • Proving inadequate safety equipment
  • Acting recklessly, such as being intoxicated or distracted
  • Violating navigational rules

Rental companies of recreational boats owe the duty of providing a boat that is seaworthy. If an accident is caused by a defective boat, then the rental company can be found liable. Boat manufacturers are required to ensure that their products are seaworthy and not defective. If an accident is caused by a malfunction in the boat, such as it being defectively designed, manufactured, or marked, then the manufacturer may be held liable.

If a passenger dies as a result of a boating accident, these liabilities are considered. There may also be a case for a wrongful death lawsuit. There is another legal basis for this type of claim, which differs from claims based in maritime law. Evaluation of negligence in wrongful death cases is similar, but not identical to the liability claims discussed above.

Considerations When Determining Liability

In maritime law, liability is often shared. Even if an accident is partially caused by a boat operator, he or she may still be held liable for their share of the damages. In evaluating the facts, liability and the degree of fault may hinge on the relative size and maneuverability of boats. Relative experience is not considered as all operators are expected to know navigational rules and be competent in operating their boat.

Liability Waivers

Sometimes, an owner will ask passengers to sign a liability waiver that releases him or her from legal liability for accidents. To be enforceable, the waiver must clearly state what rights are being waived, and the terms of the agreement must show that a knowledgeable person can understand the agreement. The waiver may including waiving right to sue for negligence. If an accident occurs and an injured person signed a waiver, then enforceability of the waiver will be evaluated to determine if it is valid.

Courts disfavor liability waivers and will invalidate them if ambiguous. While signing a liability waiver is not an absolute bar to prevailing in a court action, it makes successful litigation much more difficult. A knowledgeable maritime lawyer will help with this process and determine the best options.

Cape May Maritime Lawyers at Freedman & Lorry, P.C. Protect Those Injured in Recreational Boating Accidents

If you were injured in a recreational boating accident that was not your fault, contact one of our Cape May maritime lawyers at Freedman & Lorry, P.C. Complete our online form or call us at 888-999-1962 for a free initial consultation today. Located in Philadelphia, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Pinehurst, North Carolina, we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Cape May and Wildwood.