Boating Accident Compensation: Who’s Liable to Pay for Damages?

Here’s what you need to know about compensation for boating accidents. Learn who pays for serious or fatal boating injuries.

In one year alone, 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 loved one are injured in a boating accident, who is responsible? Here’s what you need to know about boating accident liability and compensation.

Compensation for Boating Accident Claims

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:

  • Drowning is the leading cause of boating-related deaths.
  • 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.

Mild to Moderate Injury Compensation

Estimating the value of boating accident injuries like muscle strains and sprains, uncomplicated fractures, or a mild concussion starts with totaling your “special” or economic damages, such as medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages.

Then add one or two times the total of your economic damages to account for your “general” or non-economic damages, also known as pain and suffering.

Example: Compensation Value of Broken Arm

Sharon Owens was one of three passengers in a ski boat operated by Chad Martin. While trying to bring the boat back into dock, Chad miscalculated, slamming the boat into the pier.

The impact caused Sharon to fall against the side of the boat, breaking her upper arm. She was rushed to the local hospital by ambulance.

Sharon’s medical expenses came to $3,500, including the cost of the ER and treating her humeral fracture. She missed six weeks of work, for $3,600 in lost wages.

Sharon’s economic damages: $3,500 + $3,600 = $7,100

Her general damages (pain and suffering): $7,100 x 2 = $14,200

Sharon’s claim value: $7,100 + $14,200 = $21,300

If Sharon decided to handle her own injury claim, she could reasonably make a compensation demand to Chad’s insurance company for $21,500 to open settlement negotiations. 

Compensation for Serious or Fatal Boating Accidents

Severe boating injuries are high-dollar claims best handled by an experienced boat accident attorney. Insurance companies will fight large payouts, so the claim may turn into a personal injury lawsuit or court case.

For example, medical expenses for a non-fatal drowning can range from $100,000 for initial treatment to $250,000 a year for long-term care. The total cost of a non-fatal drowning that results in brain damage can easily reach $5 million.

No matter the lifetime cost of a severe injury, in many cases, compensation will be limited to the amount of available insurance or the at-fault party’s assets.

A skilled 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.

Case Example: $200 Million Awarded In Georgia Boating Death

Ryan Batchelder was seven years old when he was riding in the open bow of a rented Malibu ski boat with three other children. The boat was operated by Ryan’s uncle, Dennis Ficarra, who made a sharp turn into a wake. Crossing the wake swamped the bow of the boat, sweeping Ryan and another child out of the boat.

Ryan was fatally struck by the propeller, entangling his body in the propeller and the drive shaft.

Through their attorneys, the Batchelder family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Malibu Boats West, and Malibu Boats, LLC, asserting a known problem with the boat design and failure to warn of the open bow’s susceptibility to swamping.

After a lengthy trial, the jury awarded $200 million to Ryan’s family, as follows:

The jury determined that Ficarra and both Malibu companies shared fault for Ryan’s death. The family was awarded $80 million in compensatory damages to be paid by Ficarra and the boating companies.

The jury also awarded $120 million in punitive damages against the Malibu boating companies, for failure to warn of the hazards posed by the open bow of the ski boat.

Establishing Liability for Boating Accidents

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.

Boat Operator and Owner’s Responsibility

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.

An operator’s negligent alcohol use, inattention, inexperience, or ignorance of local boating laws can cause serious injuries to passengers. When the boat operator’s negligence causes an accident, the negligent operator is liable, meaning responsible, for damages caused by the accident.

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.

If you were injured on a boat, 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.

Commercial Boat Service Companies

Charter fishing boats, river cruises, and other commercial boating venues should have specific liability policies with higher limits than personal insurance policies. Don’t be put off if the boat business’s insurance company says you signed a waiver of liability.

Talk to a personal injury attorney. Waivers may not apply in your case. After all, no one would waive the right to ride on a safe boat, with a sober and qualified operator.

Watercraft and Safety Gear Manufacturers

Your attorney will file a lawsuit against the manufacturer and retailer of boats and water safety equipment when a product defect contributed to the accident.

Product liability lawsuits can arise from a manufacturing defect, a design flaw, or a failure to warn of potential hazards. Similarly, the manufacturer may be liable for a breach of warranty, meaning the product did not perform as expected.

An example of breach of warranty would be a life jacket that is rated for adult high-impact use, but the straps break when a skier falls into the water.

Proving Your Boat Accident 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 cause of the accident
  4. The accident resulted in verifiable injuries

What You Should Know About Comparative Fault

Many states have modified contributory and comparative negligence laws. 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.

The at-fault party’s insurance company doesn’t get to have the last word on shared blame. A personal injury attorney will challenge the adjuster’s allegations of fault. You will end up with more compensation when your attorney can lessen or eliminate any portion of fault blamed on you.

How You Can Build a Strong Injury Claim

Meeting your burden of proof for a boat accident claim begins by gathering evidence.

Start collecting evidence as soon as possible after the 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.

Evidence to support your boating accident case:

1. 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.

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

3. Witness Statements: Speak to other boaters and 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 accident claim.

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

4. 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.

5. Personal Notes: 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.

Most boat accident lawyers offer a free consultation to accident victims. There’s no obligation and no cost to get an evaluation of your personal injury case.

Boating Accident 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 >>