According to the U.S. Coast Guard, boating accidents injure or kill more than 4,000 people each year. As a result, thousands of boat insurance claims are filed. If you’re hurt in a boating accident, you likely want to recover the costs of your medical bills, prescription medications, lost wages, and for the pain and suffering you endured because of the accident.
In this section, we cover:
- Common boating accidents and injuries
- Who’s at fault
- Gathering evidence
- Mitigation of injuries
- Insurance issues
- When you need a lawyer
Common Boating Accidents
Collisions with boats, personal watercraft, and other watercraft
The number of registered boats, personal watercraft like Jet Skis, and other watercraft rises each year. Since boaters tend to congregate in common waters, the probability of collisions is quite high.
Collisions with piers, buoys, and sandbars
Whether out of inexperience or flagrant disregard, drivers often fail to observe channel designations, buoy placements, and signs. When boaters collide with these objects, passengers are often seriously hurt.
Inexperienced or unknowledgeable drivers often drop their anchors off the wrong side of the boat. When passengers shift from port to starboard or from bow to stern, their weight distribution, combined with the existing weight imbalance, can result in capsizing.
Onboard fires occur because of faulty, aged, or non-insulated wiring. Other causes are poorly grounded appliances, spilled gasoline, fuel leaks, and engine overheating.
When a boat hits another boat, a pier, or some other solid object, the crash can sometimes damage the hull. Because damages to the hull are usually underwater, they’re difficult to see. The boat will take on water, resulting in capsizing, sinking, or flooding.
Falling onboard and overboard
A driver’s excessive speed or reckless maneuvering will make the boat unsteady, which can toss the passengers around. Depending on where they’re sitting or standing, they can fall in the boat or overboard.
Suction into driveshaft and propellers
Some boats have inboard/outboard engines, some are inboards, and some are outboards. Inboard and outboard engines rely on suction and propulsion of water. Outboard engines rely strictly on exposed propellers, or props. When someone jumps or falls into the water too close to the rear, called the bow, the engine can suck the person under the boat or into the propeller.
Common Causes of Boat Accidents
Driver intoxication either from alcohol or drugs is the most common cause of boating accidents today. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, an “intoxicated boat operator (driver) is five times more likely to cause a collision with another watercraft.” Voluntary intoxication along with dehydration from alcohol consumption substantially impairs a driver’s reflexes and depth perception.
Recklessness by speeding and dangerous maneuvering
Excessive speed is dangerous. Boats don’t have brakes. Gauging the amount of time it takes to bring a boat to a full stop is all but impossible for most drivers. Maneuvering by turning too sharply or sudden attempts to stop often result in passengers falling to the floor or overboard.
Driver distraction – cell phones, televisions, loud music
When a driver is talking on his cell phone, taking photographs, or texting, he’s easily distracted. Other driver distractions include watching sporting events on television and listening to loud music. These distractions inhibit a driver from hearing approaching boats, personal watercraft, water skiers, and other objects.
When a boat engine breaks down, stranded drivers and passengers have to wait for help. While they wait, overexposure to the sun, dehydration, and hypothermia can happen. Malfunctioning fire extinguishers can allow a fire to rage out of control. Lack of required life jackets can result in drowning.
Unlicensed and inexperienced drivers
Today, the majority of states require boat drivers (operators) to have licenses. After the driver passes a boat safety course, he gets the license. Unfortunately, thousands of boat operators ignore the law and drive without a license. Inexperienced drivers are more likely to miss buoys and channel restriction signs. They can’t properly gauge turning radiuses and the time necessary to navigate away from other boaters, swimmers, and water skiers.
Driving through hazardous areas – the Intracoastal Waterway
Channel signs, buoys, and various “water markers” designate the areas where commercial and private boats can travel. These indicators are part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s U.S. Aids to Navigation System, along with private markers on privately owned waterways. They’re in place to guide drivers to safe areas and keep them from dangerous ones. When a driver ignores these indicators he can end up running ashore on a sandbar.
Driving in bad weather
When a driver ignores weather warnings, he places his passengers in danger. Driving in bad weather can result in capsizing, passengers struck by lightning or thrown about the boat or overboard.
When too many people and items are onboard, the boat’s weight can suddenly shift one way or another. Fishhooks, exposed fishing knives, and other sharp objects can injure passengers.
Common Boating Injuries
Amputations, lacerations, contusions, and abrasions
When a driver or passenger swims too close to the driveshaft or propeller, he can suffer serious cuts, scrapes, and bruises to his face and body. More serious injuries include amputation of limbs and fingers.
When a boat repeatedly smacks the water, the boat throws the passengers violently upward and then downward; this action can cause spinal compression and disk hernias. The sensation is similar to an elevator stopping suddenly. The knees can buckle while the back and spinal cord absorb the force of the impact.
Concussions, skull fractures, and broken bones
A passenger has little control of his body in a recklessly driven boat. There can be nothing to hold onto if the passenger is in an open space. The force of an impact that throws the passenger down or against a hard surface is sometimes sufficient to cause brain concussions, skull fractures, and broken bones.
Whiplash occurs in boat accidents just as it does in car accidents. When the neck and body twist suddenly from one side to another, the action can sprain or tear ligaments and tendons.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
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 by asphyxiation (suffocation).
Water greatly increases electricity conduction from exposed or poorly insulated wiring and onboard appliances like radios, televisions, and stereo systems. Injuries range from mild shock to death.
Hyperthermia – heat stroke
When a driver permits his passengers to stay in the sun too long, they can suffer hyperthermia, sometimes called “heat stroke.” People have hyperthermia when the body’s temperature rises faster than it cools. Dehydration from alcohol consumption worsens the condition.
The ultimate injury from boating accidents is drowning. When the owner/driver fails to provide required life jackets, he puts his passengers at risk of drowning.
Liability – Who’s responsible?
The driver of a boat is responsible for the health and welfare of his passengers. The law places a legal duty of care (obligation) upon him to operate his boat safely at all times while looking out for the safety of his passengers. His failure to do this means he’s negligent when operating his boat.
When you’re hurt in a boating accident, the law places the burden of proof on you to show the driver’s negligence was responsible for the accident and your resulting injuries. To meet your burden of proof, you must prove by a preponderance (majority) of the evidence the driver’s negligent operation of the boat was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of the accident and your resulting injuries.
While this is a lot of legal jargon, meeting your burden of proof isn’t all that complicated. It begins by gathering evidence.
If you don’t have a camera, use your cell phone. Take pictures of the boat, the driver, point of impact, exposed wiring, etc. Look for areas where water pooled or where paint chipped from impact. Look for beer bottles or open containers. You may not get another opportunity to take photos, so take as many as you can.
Incident or police reports
If the accident was serious enough for the police or Coast Guard to come, make sure you get the service number of the report. You can pick it up from the police or Coast Guard a few days later for a nominal fee.
The report will indicate the investigating officer’s opinion of the cause of the accident. It will also show any tickets the driver received for safety violations like lack of life jackets, exposed wiring, etc., and whether the driver got tickets for speeding, reckless driving, or other criminal infractions. It will also show whether the police arrested him for intoxication.
You probably know who was on the boat with you at the time of the accident. Get their names and contact information. Have any witnesses jot down on a piece of paper what they saw or heard, and what, in their opinion, was a contributing factor in the accident. If there’s another boat involved, get the driver’s and his passengers’ statements and contact information.
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 all admissions against interest (he’s admitting it was his fault) and are strong evidence in a boat insurance claim.
Your medical records are crucial. If you went to the emergency room, ask for copies of your admitting chart. Whether you see an emergency room doctor or your own physician, ask for a written diagnosis of your injuries. Specifically ask whether she concluded the accident directly caused your injuries. Also, ask her for a written prognosis of the medical treatment or therapy you require.
A boat passenger has a duty to mitigate his damages. To mitigate means you have a responsibility not to engage in activities that tend to contribute to your own injuries. Failure to mitigate your damages can result in being wholly or partially barred from compensation for those injuries.
Examples of contributing to your own injuries are:
- Voluntary intoxication
- Ignoring driver instructions
- Reckless behavior
Some homeowners purchase umbrella homeowners’ policies, which, among other things, cover injuries on their boats while in the water. However, most 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 liability insurance policies covering injuries to passengers while boating. These riders are usually 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, their passengers, and others who may get hurt.
If you have injuries, make sure you ask the boat’s driver and owner (if different people) for their insurance information. If another boat caused the accident, you can file separate boat insurance claims against the driver and the owner of that boat, while at the same time filing an insurance claim against the owner and driver of the boat you were in as a passenger at the time of the accident.
Do you need a lawyer?
It depends. If your injuries are soft tissue like lacerations (cuts), contusions (bruises), or abrasions (scrapes), or if you suffered whiplash or minor burns, you can probably handle your own boat insurance claim. If your injuries are the more serious hard injuries like broken bones, second- or third-degree burns, scarring, amputations, spinal cord injuries, etc. you need an attorney.
If a friend or loved one drowned, an attorney is essential. There’s just too much at stake. It’s likely your attorney will have to aggressively seek evidence from the driver and his insurance company through subpoenas, depositions (recorded interviews), interrogatories (questions the other side must answer), etc.
See an example of a boat accident demand letter here.
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