Boating Accidents FAQ

What is a boating accident, exactly?

Boating accidents seem pretty self-explanatory: they are accidents that happen on or with a boat. However, it covers a wide variety of different accidents and vessels, from sailboats to speedboats to personal watercraft (jet skis) to even hovercraft. The most common kinds of accidents include either hitting another vessel or hitting an obstacle, like a reef or a dock.

When a wreck happens on a lake or a river, it will likely be covered by local and state laws. However, if your boating accident happens out at sea, it will fall under maritime law. This is a highly complex field of federal law. The reason maritime law applies is because the coastal waters belong to the United States as a whole, not to individual states.

If a boating accident meets certain criteria, it must be reported to the Coast Guard. These criteria include:

  • If a life is lost
  • If there is substantial injury requiring treatment beyond first aid
  • If a person is missing, and there is reason to believe they were injured or killed
  • There is a total loss of a vessel
  • Total damage caused in the accident equals at least $2,000

Only one of these requirements must be met before a report must be filed.

Boating accidents happen for many reasons, but the most common is also the most avoidable: alcohol. In 2014, alcohol use caused 277 accidents, 248 injuries and 108 deaths nationwide. Florida law dictates that it is illegal to operate a water vessel with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more. However, operating a boat with any alcohol in your system can be a fatal mistake.

What causes most boating accidents?

Within our state, there are more than 915,000 registered watercraft. It’s estimated that there are at least a million unregistered watercraft as well, a number that is sure to grow. Due to the sheer number of boats, there are thousands of accidents a year, even if many of them are not reported. It would be convenient to be able to say that bad weather and rough seas cause the majority of boating accidents in South Florida. However, the true answer is much more nuanced than that.

According to the United States Coast Guard, there were more than 4,000 boating accidents across the country in 2014. These accidents resulted in nearly 2,700 injuries and more than 600 deaths. Most accidents occurred during actual operation of the vessel. Here are the biggest contributing factors:

  • Operator inattention: 563 accidents, 370 injuries, 38 deaths
  • Improper lookout: 431 accidents, 321 injuries, 26 deaths
  • Operator inexperience: 391 accidents, 256 injuries, 44 deaths
  • Excessive speed: 282 accidents, 267 injuries, 23 deaths
  • Alcohol use: 277 accidents, 248 injuries, 108 deaths

 

Hazardous weather and water conditions combined contributed to only 359 accidents, 168 injuries and 100 deaths. By far, the deadliest force on the water is boating under the influence. It is vital that the person operating the boat has plenty of experience, is paying attention and is sober. In Florida, the legal alcohol limit for boaters is the same as it is for drivers: 0.08 blood alcohol content. But, just like intoxicated drivers, you can also get into legal trouble if you are operating a boat erratically after just a couple drinks.  

When do most boating accidents occur?

As you might imagine, most people get out onto the open water in the warm summer months. With more vessels on the lakes, rivers and ocean, there is a greater chance for boating accidents during the summer. According to the United States Coast Guard, the greatest number of accidents for 2014 occurred in July, with 961 accidents nationwide. Of those, about 11 percent resulted in fatalities.

However, other months were more fatal percentage-wise than July. For instance, in April, there were 232 accidents. Of those, 47 resulted in fatalities — 20 percent. November is usually a slow month for boating, but in that month as well, 20 percent of the 105 accidents resulted in fatalities. When it comes to the percentage of accidents resulting in death, late autumn through early winter is the most dangerous.

Time of day also plays a major role in boating fatalities. Unfortunately, over 35 percent of all fatal accidents are not able to accurately be placed in a certain time frame. But, for those accidents that can be placed in a timeframe, midnight to 2:30 a.m. is the deadliest. There are a number of reasons this is the case. There will likely be fewer boats on the water that can react to an emergency situation, and boat operators out at that time of night will not be able to see far enough ahead to avoid potential collisions.

Finally, the deadliest days of the week for boating are Saturday and Sunday. This phenomenon is pretty self-explanatory. More people are able to get out onto the water on the weekend, when work and other responsibilities are left on the shore. It is vital for any water vessel operator to be attentive and mindful of their surroundings, especially when the waterways are congested on the weekends.

How do I prepare for and prevent a boating accident?

The number one most important thing you can do to prevent causing a boating accident is to never operate a water vessel if you’ve been drinking. Nationwide, drinking caused 359 accidents in 2014, according to the Coast Guard. From those accidents, there were more than 100 fatalities.

Even if you haven’t been drinking, an inexperienced or inattentive operator can cause a great deal of damage. In total, operator errors cause thousand of accidents — and hundreds of deaths — every single year. If you are not too experienced with operating a boat, or you just got your license, never go out alone. Have someone watching your back to make sure you don’t make any serious mistakes that could end in disaster.

No matter how safe and attentive you are, the fact of the matter is, accidents happen. Make sure anyone who comes onto your boat knows what to do in an emergency situation. Wearing a personal floatation device (a life vest) is the best way to prepare for a boating accident. However, we know lifejackets are often not comfortable and, at the very least, are definitely not stylish. If you can’t bring yourself to wear it, at least have it within arm’s reach to make sure it is always available to you.

Even if you are not operating the boat, be careful if you have been drinking. It’s hard enough keeping your balance on dry land if you are inebriated; trying to do so when a boat is rocking on the waves can be downright impossible. Remain seated whenever possible. Stay toward the center of the boat, where the rocking will affect you the least.

What do I do if I get in a boating accident?

Boating accidents can ruin what was supposed to be a great weekend with family and friends — and can do much more damage. Whether you run into another boat, hit a dock, capsize or someone falls overboard, there are a few things you should do in every situation. First of all, it’s imperative you make sure everyone is okay and accounted for. If someone has fallen overboard, slow the boat down and throw a personal floatation device (i.e. a lifejacket) if they aren’t already wearing one. You can also throw a lifesaver or other floating tool to them to pull them back to the boat. Slowly turn the boat around so you are next to them, then stop the engine until they are back on board.

If your boat capsizes or sinks, stay with the boat if possible. It’s much easier to see a ship in danger than to see people floating in the water. If you made the mistake of not wearing a life vest, try to find one quickly and either put it on or hold on to it. If you can’t, find anything that floats, like a cooler, and hold on to that until rescue arrives.

Once everyone is accounted for and first aid is administered as needed, it’s time to deal with the tedious side of things. In Florida, you must report the accident if it meets at least one of these five criteria:

  • There is a total loss of a vessel
  • There is a fatality
  • A person needs medical attention that goes beyond simple first aid
  • A person disappears and it seems they were egregiously injured or killed
  • At least $2,000 worth of total damage is done to property, including any vessel involved

If you do get into an accident with another vessel, you will need to exchange information with the other operator. This includes insurance information, names, addresses, phone numbers and Hull ID numbers. Take photos of any and all damage, as well as an inventory of any items lost. You will need to call your insurance agency and follow their directions. But, don’t sign any kind of settlement agreement until you speak to your attorney.

What do I do if I go overboard?

Of the 55 fatalities from boating accidents in 2015 in Florida, 22 were caused by falling overboard. That’s over 40 percent of all fatalities. This is still the main cause of boating deaths. Though other injuries may occur from falling overboard, the most common cause of death is drowning, accounting for 64 percent of all fatalities.

If you are involved in a boating accident and go overboard, it’s vital that you don’t panic. Thrashing about can zap all of your energy and, at the very worst, attract unwelcome wildlife. Instead, use your voice. Yell out as loud as you can, “MAN OVERBOARD,” along with either “port” or “starboard,” depending on which side you fell off of. This will attract both your own boat and any others in the area. Keep yelling until you get someone’s attention.

A spotter should point out your location as soon as they see you. They should keep pointing at you until the boat is with you. Otherwise, your location could be quickly lost in the waves. When the boat gets to you, someone should throw a floatation device toward you (hopefully you will be wearing a life vest already). When you are finally able to get onto the boat, make sure you are securely seated and uninjured before taking off again.

The best way to avoid falling over is to remain seating whenever you can. This is especially true if you have been drinking. You may find yourself teetering on dry land, and the rocking of the boat can make it even worse. Even if you are completely sober, make sure to always wear a life vest — or, at the very least, have one within reach.

When does a boating accident need to be reported?

Florida leads the nation when it comes to the number of water vessels, at  915,713. However, there are likely at least a million unregistered boats on the water as well. With so many boats and other vessels, it’s no surprise that there are thousands of accidents on the water every year. However, only a portion of those accidents are reported. That’s because one of five criteria need to be met in order to be considered “reportable”:

  • There is a fatality
  • There is a total loss of a vessel
  • At least $2,000 worth of total damage is done to property, including any vessel involved
  • A person needs medical attention that goes beyond simple first aid
  • A person disappears and it seems they were egregiously injured or killed

Under these requirements, there were 737 reported accidents in Florida in 2015. The most common accident that led to a report was a collision with another boat, which accounted for over a quarter of reports. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Miami-Dade County led the state with the most reported accidents and injuries. Within the area, there were 96 accidents, resulting in 74 injuries and three deaths.

In total, there were 55 fatalities in 2015. Of those, falling overboard was the most common accident, at 42 percent of all accidents. These overboard accidents resulted in 35 instances of drowning, the leading cause of death. In addition, alcohol and drug use was a factor in nearly a fifth of all fatalities. When it comes down to it, being sober and attentive is the best way to stay safe when boating of Florida’s waters.

What needs to be included in a boating accident?

In the state of Florida and across the country, thousands of accidents happen every year. However, only some of them need to be reported to the United States Coast Guard. In 2015, Florida saw 737 reportable boat accidents. What makes accidents reportable? They must meet at least one of the five following requirements:

  • Someone was killed
  • Some was seriously injured
  • Someone went missing, and they are probably hurt or killed
  • Total damage done equals at least $2,000
  • A vessel is lost or damaged beyond repair

In these instances, there is a report that must be filled out and submitted to the Coast Guard. This document can be found online, and is easy enough to fill out (though it may take some time to do so). You will need to fill out details of the accident, including damage done to the vessel and persons either injured or killed. You will also need to make note of where and when the accident happened, and how many people were on the boat at the time.  

After the details of your accident, you will need to also include the details of your boat, including its make, model, identification numbers and other information. To the best of your ability, make note of the weather at the time, as well as the water conditions. If equipment failure caused your accident, you will need to note what failed. Finally, you will need to make note of any other factors that contributed to the accident, such as alcohol or drug use and excessive speed.

These factors can be potentially incriminating, so be wary with them. If you can, contact your attorney before filling out the report. However, don’t wait too long to do so. If an injury or death was the reason for the report, you only have 48 hours to file it. If it was just property damage, you have just 10 days.

How do I recover damages after a boating accident?

There are only certain times you can recover compensation after a boating accident. The most common is when another boat crashes into yours. More often than not, operators of both boats are at least partially at fault. For instance, if one boat is speeding and hits another, but the other wasn’t properly looking out, both operators would be at fault.

Another sticky situation would be one in which a boat crashes into a particularly large wake caused by another boat. In general, boat operators are required to look out for dangers like that. However, if a boat does create a particularly large wake, especially in a no-wake zone, they could be held liable for negligence. These are just a couple of the many situations in which compensation may be recovered.

The state of Florida operates under pure comparative negligence. That means the money you can recover is directly proportional to your part in the accident. For instance, if the judge believes you are owed $10,000 for your damages, but you are deemed 30 percent responsible for the accident, you can only recover $7,000 in compensation. Often, this comes down to opinions, and it is vital you have an experienced attorney who knows how to handle these cases.

At Steinger, Greene & Feiner, we have many decades of combined experience handling all sorts of personal injury cases, including boating accidents, in Miami and the rest of South Florida. We know how to get you the compensation you deserve after you’ve been in a boating accident that was someone else’s fault. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.

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