Accidents on the water can be extremely dangerous. Boaters can quickly find themselves facing circumstances they cannot control. Even experienced boaters can only do so much to keep themselves, their crew members, and their passengers out of harm’s way.
Unfortunately, many boaters lack the knowledge and experience they need to stay safe. Florida does not require boaters to be licensed (although boaters born after 1987 must take a boating education course). Alcohol consumption and distracted boating are common factors in boating accidents as well. Regardless of the circumstances involved, those injured in boating accidents must act quickly to protect their legal rights, and they must have a clear understanding of the steps for seeking just compensation.
When Can You Seek Financial Compensation for a Boating Accident?
Boating accidents can justify claims for financial compensation under a variety of different circumstances. In most (but not all) cases, seeking financial compensation for a boating accident requires proof of negligence.
Proving Negligence in a Florida Boating Accident
Under Florida law, a boater is only legally responsible for causing a boat accident if the boater was negligent. To establish liability for negligence, it is necessary to prove that:
- The boater owed a duty of care;
- The boater breached this duty of care; and,
- The boater’s breach caused the accident.
Let’s consider a common scenario: A relatively inexperienced recreational boater has too much to drink over Labor Day weekend. When the boater gets caught in the chop created by other boats in his vicinity, he goes full throttle to try to get to calmer waters and crashes into the side of another vessel at speed.
Was the boater negligent? Almost certainly. In Florida, all boaters owe a duty of care on the water. They must operate their vessels safely, and they must remain within the limits of their capabilities at all times. Boating under the influence is extremely dangerous in its own right, and, since it is illegal, it is considered “negligence per se” under Florida law. The fact that the boater chose to go full throttle rather than navigating cautiously through traffic also points to a breach of the boater’s duty of care.
It also appears that the boater caused the accident—particularly since the boater crashed into the side of another vessel. If the collision had been head-on, then there may be a question as to which boater was at fault (or if both boaters shared liability). But, this is less likely to be an issue under the circumstances presented.
Of course, this is just one of countless potential scenarios. Boating accidents can – and do – happen under an extremely broad range of circumstances. Even if it seems fairly obvious that a boater was negligent, proving negligence always requires an investigation—and hiring a lawyer to conduct an investigation as soon as possible affords the best chance to pursue a successful claim.
Common Forms of Negligence Involved in Boating Accidents
Negligence in boating accidents can take several different forms. For example, depending on the circumstances involved, an investigation may reveal that a boating accident was the result of:
- Boating under the influence of alcohol
- Boating under the influence of marijuana or other drugs
- Distracted boating (i.e., navigating, texting, or taking photos at the helm)
- Inadequate experience as a boater or with particular water or weather conditions
- Going too fast, following too closely, and other common boating mistakes
- Horseplay with passengers
- Negligent operation of equipment onboard
Failure to equip boats with lifejackets and other necessary safety equipment, anchoring and docking errors, and other mistakes can also lead to accidents and accident-related injuries. When these types of negligence lead to accidents, passengers who suffer injuries may have claims against the vessel operator and/or the vessel owner.
What Are Your Options for Recovering Financial Compensation After a Boating Accident?
Determining the cause of a boating accident allows an attorney to determine who (or what company) is liable. Similar to car accidents, most boating accident cases involve insurance claims. But, there are other possibilities as well. In some cases, injured captains, crewmembers, and passengers will need to file multiple claims to fully recover their accident-related losses.
Depending on the circumstances involved in a boating accident, those who suffer injuries in the accident may have claims for:
1. Boat Liability Insurance/Watercraft Liability Coverage
Florida law does not require boat owners to carry liability insurance. Fortunately, lenders typically require owners to purchase coverage, and many marinas require slip owners to carry insurance as well. Additionally, responsible boat owners will voluntarily purchase insurance to protect accident victims (and themselves) in the event of a collision.
If you were injured in an accident caused by boater negligence, you would need to find out if the boater has insurance. If you were not able to exchange information with the boater at the scene, an attorney can find out if the boater has coverage. While policy limits can vary widely, filing a liability insurance claim will be accident victims’ best – and only – option in many cases.
2. Uninsured/Underinsured Boater Insurance Coverage
If you have boat insurance, you will want to review your policy to see if you have uninsured/underinsured boater coverage. This type of policy applies in two scenarios:
- You can file an uninsured boater claim if the boater who caused the accident doesn’t have insurance or fled the scene of the accident; and,
- You can file an underinsured boater claim if the at-fault boater’s liability insurance does not fully cover the financial and non-financial costs of your accident-related injuries.
Even though filing an uninsured or underinsured boater claim involves dealing with your own insurance company, you still need proof of negligence. Essentially, your insurance company “stands in the shoes” of the negligent driver’s insurer. This means that filing a successful uninsured or underinsured boater claim can be just as difficult as filing a claim with a negligent boater’s insurance company, and, as a result, it is best to hire an experienced attorney to help you through the process.
Passengers can often file claims under boat owners’ uninsured/underinsured boater policies. Since many passengers don’t have their boating insurance, this helps ensure that passengers have access to coverage in the event that they are injured in an accident caused by a negligent boater.
3. Commercial Liability Insurance Coverage
Many boats operating on Florida’s inshore waters and off of the Florida coast are commercial vessels. If you were injured in an accident involving a commercial vessel, you may have a claim under the vessel owner’s commercial liability insurance policy. For example, this could be the case if:
- You were injured while on a chartered cruise or fishing expedition;
- You were injured in a collision with a chartered sailboat, fishing boat, or another commercial vessel; or,
- You were injured in an accident involving a barge, dock, marina hazard, or underwater hazard such as an unmarked pipeline.
This applies primarily to recreational boaters and their passengers. Individuals who work on boats are protected by federal maritime laws, and these laws establish special rules and procedures for work-related injury claims. However, there are some exceptions. Since federal maritime laws often don’t provide full coverage for workers’ injuries, it is important for injured workers to make sure they pursue all possible claims.
4. Defects or Negligent Maintenance
While operator negligence is the most common cause of boating accidents, it is not the only possible factor. Issues with boats themselves can also lead to accidents and injuries on the water. Two different types of liability claims can arise in these scenarios:
- Manufacturer or Dealer Liability for a Boat Defect – A boat, boat engine, or other component may be deemed “defective” if it is unsafe for the water when it leaves the factory. Florida law holds manufacturers and dealers “strictly liable” for product defects. This means that proof of negligence is not required. Instead, a claimant must be able to prove that (i) the boat, boat engine, or other component was defective (as defined by Florida law), and (ii) the defect caused the claimant’s injuries.
- Liability for Negligent Boat Maintenance – Boat owners, independent maintenance providers, and marinas that provide maintenance services can be held liable for negligent boat maintenance. Claims for negligent maintenance can involve either (i) a boat owner’s failure to properly maintain the vessel (i.e., failure to conduct necessary maintenance) or (ii) performing faulty maintenance work or repairs.
Defective lifejackets and other items can present injury risks as well. Florida’s strict liability law applies to all types of defective products. Even if an accident is not the result of negligence or a boat defect, it may still be possible to pursue a claim for defective equipment. For example, if a careless passenger falls overboard and an inflatable life jacket fails to deploy, the passenger could still have a claim against the inflatable life jacket’s manufacturer.
5. Compensation Under the Jones Act or Other Maritime Laws
Many individuals who work on the water are protected under the Jones Act and other maritime laws. As mentioned above, these laws establish special rules and requirements for injured workers who need to file claims. For many workers, filing a successful maritime injury claim will be essential for staying on their feet, and working with a lawyer who has experience handling these types of claims will give them the best opportunity to collect the benefits they deserve.
What Should You Do if You (or a Loved One) was Injured in a Boating Accident in Florida?
If you (or a loved one) were injured in a boating accident in Florida, what should you do? Some of the most important steps to take after an accident on the water include:
- Report the Accident – Boaters must report all accidents to the appropriate authorities. Depending on where an accident occurs, this could mean reporting the accident to the local police, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionDivision of Law Enforcement, or another agency. Even if you contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, you may still need to report the accident at the state or local level. If you have boat insurance, you will also need to report the accident to your insurance company.
- Preserve as Much Information as Possible – Individuals who suffer injuries in boating accidents should take detailed notes as soon as possible, and they should be sure to keep any photos or videos they took with their phones. Injured captains, crewmembers, and passengers should be sure to keep any other information they have (i.e., the other vessel owner’s insurance information) from the accident as well.
- Speak with a Boating Accident Lawyer – One of the most important steps you can take after a boating accident is to speak with a lawyer as soon as possible. As we have discussed, there are several steps involved in filing a successful claim for financial compensation. A lawyer can deal with the authorities and insurance companies for you, gather evidence of liability, negotiate for a favorable settlement, and take your claim (or claims) to court if necessary.
Speak with a Coral Gables Boating Accident Lawyer for Free
Do you need to speak with a lawyer about a boating accident in Florida? If so, we encourage you to contact us promptly. To speak with a Florida boating accident lawyer in confidence, call 305-445-0011 or tell us how we can reach you online now.