Over 12.5 million boats of every size, description, and intended use are registered in the United States. They range from 8-foot handmade sailboats to 16-foot ski boats to 30-foot cabin cruisers to 36-foot sailboats to 100-foot and longer luxury yachts. A day of sun and fun through boating at the river, lake, bay, or ocean can quickly turn into disaster due to an accident that results in serious injury or even death to persons in or out of the boat.
Especially on warm summer days and long weekends, California’s waterways become crowded with all types of watercraft (“vessels”), with operators having experience ranging from years of boating to first-timers who just bought a boat and paid scant attention to how to properly and safely operate the vessel. Statistically, your chances of being injured or killed in a boating accident are highest on a Saturday or Sunday in July, between the hours of 12:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Besides the various types of traditional boats, there are the personal watercraft (PWC), such as Jet Skis and the like, inflatable boats and rafts, pontoon boats, houseboats, speedboats, and airboats. The vessels are used for a variety of different pastimes, from fishing to skiing to pleasure cruising to around-the-world sailing to racing to white-water rafting and more.
Approximately 3,500 reported injuries and 700 reported deaths occur each year due to boating-related accidents. (The numbers of actual deaths and injuries related to boating accidents may be underreported because of the owner/operator’s failure to know of reporting requirements, discussed below.) Injuries due to boat accidents can come from a variety of sources: (1) death by drowning, (2) brain damage caused by lack of oxygen due to submersion in the water, (3) severe traumatic bodily injuries inflicted by an unguarded propeller, (4) colliding with another vessel or fixed object, such as a bridge trestle, (5) being run over by a boat or struck by a PWC, or (6) the inhalation of a lethal level of carbon monoxide, to name a few. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all reported fatalities.
Approximately two-thirds of boat-related fatalities are due to drowning. 80 percent of all drownings and other deaths in boat-related fatalities involved boats less than 26 feet long. 90 percent of the victims who have drowned in a boating accident were not wearing a lifejacket at the time of the incident. It is the boat owner/operator’s duty to see to it that all passengers are correctly wearing proper-fitting lifejackets. The operator of the boat has a duty to see that there are a sufficient number of lifejackets for each and every passenger.
Most boating accidents are due to operator carelessness (“negligence”). Open boats without a cabin or skiffs are the most common type of boat to be involved in an accident. Personal watercraft (PWC) are the second most common type of water vehicle involved in accidents, followed by open boats with a cabin.
The top five types of boating accidents are:
Many, if not most, boating accidents could be prevented by a skilled, attentive boat operator. In fact, most boating accidents are caused by the operator’s negligence. Some of the most frequent operator-controllable causes of or contributors to boating-related accidents are: (1) operator inattention, (2) carelessness or recklessness of the operator, (3) operator inexperience, (4) excessive speed, (5) no proper outlook when towing a skier, (6) towing a person in an inner tube, (7) other person, (8) alcohol or drug use, (9) making a sharp turn; (10) overloading the vessel, and (11) violating the “rules of the road.”
Other conditions may not be under the operator’s control, but nonetheless may give rise to a lawsuit for negligence against the boat’s owner/operator. For instance, the operator of the boat may have no control over angry seas, but taking the boat out in hazardous waters or during foul weather may constitute negligence and subject the owner/operator to a negligence lawsuit if the boat were to capsize and the passengers became injured or died.
The operator of a boat is legally required to know the “rules of the road” and how to operate the boat safely so as not to pose an unreasonable risk of danger both to persons in and out of the boat. The owner can be held legally responsible (“liable”) for all injuries and deaths caused by another person the owner lets operate the boat without ensuring that the person has experience with and is reasonably skilled at operating the kind of vessel in question and is not impaired by alcohol or drugs. Seventy percent of reported boating-related fatalities occurred on boats where the operator had not received boating safety instruction. The lowest number of fatalities and injuries occurs among operators who have taken a course of instruction in boat safety by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.
In addition to knowing how to operate the vessel safely, the owner/operator must inspect the boat regularly to ensure that it is in good shape for the purpose for which it is going to be used, i.e., that the boat is seaworthy. For instance, for an 18-foot ski boat, the operator must inspect the hull, the steering mechanism, the throttle, and other parts of the boat to ensure they are in good working order.
In the case of a boat that will be towing skiers, inner tubes, other boats, and such, special attention should be given to the cleats to which the tow line is going to be attached. The boat operator will want to make sure that the cleats are securely anchored and do not pose a danger of coming loose and hitting someone in the boat or the skier or boat being towed. In motorboats, the operator must also check the fuel tank, engine, and other moving parts to ensure that they are in good working order and not likely to fail or cause a fire or other untoward event.
Boat operators are required to report their accidents to authorities in the jurisdiction where the accident occurred. The report must be made within 48 hours of an occurrence if: (1) a person dies within 24 hours of the occurrence; (2) a person requires medical treatment beyond first aid; or (3) a person disappears from the vessel. If the only damage is to the vessels and/or property and it is $2,000 or more, or there is a complete loss of any vessel, the incident must be reported within 10 days of the occurrence. The owner is required to submit the report when the operator cannot. Note that the above minimum reporting requirements are set by federal regulations; individual states are free to impose stricter standards.
If you own a boat, personal watercraft (PWC), or other vessel or watercraft, you should check with your insurance agent to make sure your vessel is adequately covered. See if the limits of your insurance are adequate to protect you in the event that injuries are catastrophic or the incident involves a death. If you don’t have adequate insurance coverage on your watercraft, and if you or someone else operating your vessel cause injury or death to a third party, that person (or their heirs in the case of a deceased person) may be able to go after your personal assets, including your home and savings, to satisfy any monetary judgment a jury may have awarded. Even if the jury finds in your favor, without insurance it still will cost you thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees to defend the case.