Boat Accident Claims & Lawsuits: How to Pursue Compensation

Boating accidents can be tragic. Here’s what you need to know to get full compensation for your boat injury claim or lawsuit.

In 2017 the United States Coast Guard (USCG) counted 4,291 recreational boating accidents, causing 658 deaths, over 2,600 injuries, and approximately $46 million in property damage.¹

From canoes to cabin cruisers, Americans love to be on the water. Boating can be a fun and healthy pastime, until something goes wrong.

If you or a family member are injured in a boating accident, who is responsible? Here’s what you need to know about boating accident liability and compensation.

Boating Accident Types & Causes

In the movies, we see boating disasters happen in the dark on raging ocean waters. The reality is that most boating accidents occur during the day, on inland waters, with good weather and light winds.

The most dangerous boating accident types are:

  • Collisions with other vessels: The highest percentage of boating accident deaths and injuries involve crashes with another watercraft.
  • Collisions with fixed objects: When boaters collide with buoys, rocks, jetties, and other immovable objects, passengers are often seriously hurt.
  • Flooding and swamping: A boat is swamped by water coming in over the side, often from large waves. Wake from a larger boat can swamp recreational vessels.
  • Grounding: Grounding occurs when the boat runs aground on a reef, rock, or pilings. Grounding can cause enough hull damage to sink the craft.
  • Falling overboard: Boat occupants can fall overboard because of unexpected changes in speed, or movement of the boat.

Top Ten Causes of Boat Accidents

  1. Operator Inattention is the leading cause of boating accidents. Just as on land, when a driver is talking on a cell phone, taking photographs, or texting, they’re not paying attention to where they are going.
  2. Improper Lookout: Boaters must be vigilant. Boat operators are required to keep an eye out for hazards that are common on the water.
  3. Lack of Experience: Most states require boat operators to be licensed after passing a boat safety course. Unlicensed, inexperienced boaters are a leading cause of boat accident deaths and injuries.
  4. Equipment Failure: Boat machinery failure can include malfunctioning motors, propellers, lights, steering, or other mechanical malfunctions.
  5. Intoxication: Alcohol use is the primary cause of boating accident deaths, involving both intoxicated boat operators and passengers.
  6. Excessive Speed is dangerous. Maneuvering by turning too sharply or sudden attempts to stop often result in passengers falling to the floor or overboard.
  7. Violating Navigation Rules: Navigation rules on the water are as important as traffic rules on the road. Boat operators must know when to yield, how to pass other vessels, and much more.
  8. Weather: Boating in bad weather is not only dangerous but may be a violation of navigation rules governing boats by size and capacity.
  9. Hazardous Waters: Channel signs, buoys, and various “water markers” designate the areas where commercial and private boats can safely travel. Traveling in dangerous waters puts the boater and passengers in peril.
  10. Wakes and Waves: The force of natural waves and wakes from other vessels can easily swamp or capsize recreational boats.

Common Injuries from Boat Accidents

Individuals who are killed or injured in a boating accident are usually the victims of drowning or trauma. There are several ways these injuries occur.

Boat Accident Drowning

  • Three out of four people killed in boating accidents die from drowning.
  • Overboard boat passengers often drown.
  • More than eight out of ten people who drowned were not wearing a life jacket.

Boat Accident Trauma

Severe, potentially life-threatening injuries from boating accidents are frequently due to:

  • Propeller accidents can cause deep cuts, amputations, and internal injuries.
  • Run-over accidents can happen to overboard passengers or swimmers who are run over by the boat, resulting in spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and other injuries similar to car accident victims.
  • Slip-and-fall accidents can happen from slippery conditions or trip hazards on the dock, on the deck, or any other area controlled by the boat owner. Slip-and-fall injuries can range from bumps and bruises to broken bones and head injuries.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when a boat is idling in the water or at a dock. Breathing in carbon monoxide for even a few minutes can result in nausea, lethargy, and vomiting. Prolonged periods of exposure can result in brain damage and death.

Compensation for Boating Accident Claims

Boating accidents may fall under your state’s laws or federal maritime laws. The maritime law covers boating accidents that occur on the sea or in port. You can bring any boating injury case to your local court. However, the maritime laws will still apply to applicable cases.

Not sure where or how to handle your boat accident claim? Contact a personal injury attorney to discuss how to pursue your compensation.

When the Boat Operator Caused the Accident

The driver of a boat is responsible for the health and welfare of the passengers. Just like car drivers, boat operators have a legal duty of care to operate the boat safely at all times while looking out for the well being of passengers.

A boat operator who speeds, steers the boat while intoxicated, or otherwise fails to operate the boat responsibly is negligent.

When the boat operator’s negligence causes an accident, the negligent operator is liable, meaning responsible, for damages caused by the accident.

Your injury damages after a boating accident might include:

  • Medical costs
  • Out-of-pocket expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Lost earning capacity
  • Consortium claims by family members
  • An amount for pain and suffering

Boat Accident Insurance Coverage

Some homeowners purchase umbrella homeowners’ policies that will cover injuries on their boats while in the water. However, most standard homeowners’ policies only cover injuries if they occur while the boat is on the insured’s property.

Some boat owners purchase “riders” on their auto insurance policies covering injuries to passengers while boating. These riders are often very limited in the amount of coverage they provide.

Instead, many boat owners, especially those who frequently carry passengers, carry separate boat liability policies covering themselves, passengers, and others who may get hurt.

Charter fishing boats, river cruises, and other commercial boating venues should have specific liability policies with higher limits than personal insurance policies.

If you have injuries, make sure you ask the boat’s driver and owner for their insurance information. If another boat caused the accident, you could file separate boat insurance claims against the drivers and owners of both boats.

Proving Your Injury Claim

Whether you’ve filed an insurance claim or lawsuit against the boat owner, you must prove your case before you will see a dime of compensation.

You’ll have to prove:

  1. The boat owner and operator owed you a duty of care
  2. The boat operator was negligent
  3. The operator’s negligence was the direct and proximate cause of the accident
  4. The accident caused your injuries

What You Should Know About Comparative Fault

Many states have comparative fault laws, also called contributory negligence. In a nutshell, that means your injury compensation can be reduced or entirely denied if you are partially to blame for the accident or the severity of your injuries.

Laws vary by state. In some states, you forfeit the right to compensation if you contributed so much as 1% to your injuries. In other states, you can still pursue compensation so long as the boat operator was more at fault than you. In still others, you can pursue compensation so long as you aren’t the only one to blame.

Don’t let the insurance company decide. A skilled personal injury attorney can defend you against allegations of comparative negligence.

Strong Claims Need Good Evidence

While this is a lot of legal jargon, meeting your burden of proof isn’t all that complicated. It begins by gathering evidence.

Begin collecting evidence as soon as possible after a boating accident. Good evidence will help you and your attorney prove the boat owner or driver is liable for your injuries. Evidence will also prove the severity of your injuries.

Photographs: Take pictures of the boat, driver, point of impact, blood on the deck or rails, exposed wiring, or anything else that shows crash damage or problems with the boat. Take pictures of beer bottles, liquor bottles or drug paraphernalia. You may not get another opportunity to take photos, so take as many as you can.

Incident Report: If the accident was serious enough for the Coast Guard to come, the investigating officer will file a report. The report will reference safety violations, citations, and other information that can support your claim.

Witness Statements: Speak to other boat passengers about the accident. Ask for their names and contact information. Have witnesses jot down on a piece of paper what they saw or heard, and what they think caused the accident.

Admissions from the driver are very important. Statements like “I didn’t see the other boat,” or “I shouldn’t have been drinking,” or “I’m sorry” are strong evidence of fault in a boat insurance claim.

If there’s another boat involved, ask for contact information and statements from the operator and passengers.

Medical Records: You’ll need copies of all your medical bills and records for an injury claim. If you aren’t taken directly to the hospital, get a medical evaluation as soon as possible. See your doctor, go to the hospital emergency room, or visit your local urgent care center.

Refusing or delaying medical treatment after a boating accident will undermine your claim. The insurance company or the boat owner’s attorney won’t hesitate to argue that your injuries aren’t related to the accident.

Keep a Diary: It’s important to write down detailed notes about the accident and how it happened. Keep a diary of your medical treatment, pain levels, sleep disturbances, bad dreams, and any other changes to your life after the accident. This documentation can support your demand for pain and suffering compensation.

Attorneys Will Fight For Your Interests

If you’ve fully recovered from soft tissue injuries like cuts, bruises, or whiplash, you can probably handle your own boat accident claim.

Your compensation will be based on the sum of your medical costs, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages. Add one or two times that total for pain and suffering for a fair settlement amount.

Look like a pro by using our sample Boat Accident Injury Demand Letter.

For more severe injuries or a wrongful death claim, you’ll need a personal injury attorney to get anywhere near the amount of compensation you deserve.

An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to discover critical evidence and information that would be hard for you to get on your own, such as the results of alcohol or drug tests given to the boat operator, asset reports on the boat owner, and all available personal and commercial insurance coverage.

Get the help you need to fight for fair compensation. There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to find out what a skilled personal injury attorney can do for you.

Boating Accident Claim Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>