Boat Accident Boating Accident Reporting, Liability, Damages & Compensation

  1. This article will answer frequently asked questions about what to do if you're involved in a boating accident, how to report an accident, how liability is apportioned and the award of money damages to an injured party.

    What are common causes of boating accidents?

    Before deciding to go boating, it is important to know state and federal boating laws. Unfortunately, many are unaware of boating laws, including how to act safely when on or around boats and waterways. In 2004, the California State Department reported a total of 744 accidents with the most common type of accident on any boat being a collision with another boat. Other common boat accidents include skier mishaps and mistakes, a passenger falling overboard, the boat capsizing or sinking, operator inattention or impairment, excessive rates of boat speed, operator inexperience, mechanical failure and a passenger falling in a boat. More than one out of every three boating accidents involve allegations of intoxication. Boating while under the influence of alcohol is illegal in every state.

    What must be done if I am involved in a boating accident?

    You will need to report the accident to the state agency that regulates boats or to the United States Coast Guard. If there was a collision involved, you should immediately contact the state agency that regulates boats to find out what type of report must be filed. Typically, boating accidents that involve personal injuries requiring medical treatment beyond immediate first aid must be reported. If there is damage to any vessel or other property damage above a certain amount, it must be reported. Do not leave the scene of an accident as failure to remain at the scene is a crime. You must render first aid to a wounded person, if needed, and you must report the accident to your insurance company.

    Who is responsible to file an accident report and when must one be filed?

    The boat operator must file an accident report unless they are not physically able to do so. Reports need to be reported to the State Boating Law Administrator when:
    • A person dies
    • Someone is injured requiring medical attention beyond first aid
    • A person disappears under circumstances suggesting injury or death
    • The boat is damaged or there is a complete loss or destruction of any boat
    Federal law requires the same when there is a boating accident on the federal waterways, including reporting any boating accident where damages exceed $2,000. However, most state laws require them to be reported when damages exceed only $500. Reporting a boat accident is required within:
    • 48 hours of the accident when a the person dies within 24 hours
    • 48 hours when an injury requires medical attention beyond first aid
    • 48 hours when a person goes missing suggesting injury or death
    • 10 days when there is only damage to the vessel or property
    If you need help reporting an accident you can contact the United States Coast Guard. You may download a Recreational Boating Accident Report Form.

    Should I make a statement regarding my boating accident to authorities?

    It may be best to avoid making any statements about a boating accident to anyone until you speak with an attorney, especially if you are fearful that you may be liable for a boating accident. Statements made at such a time can affect your claim or defense. When asked questions by a marine patrol officer or the U.S. Coast Guard, you should only provide basic and essential information such as your name, address, registration, etc. and state that details may be provided later. If you make a statement at such a time and admit to some fault or omit information about an injury, this can greatly affect the outcome of your claim later. If you are approached by news reporters after a boating accident, you should tell them you have “no comment” as you don’t need to say anything. You do need to first properly assess the situation and speak with your attorney for legal advice on moving forward after a boating accident.

    Determining liability after a boating accident

    State laws vary and, before blame is assigned to any boat operator, a court or jury will need to answer a number of important questions:
    • Was the accident caused by the reckless driving of a boat operator?
    • Was the accident cause by a malfunction of a mechanical part of the boat?
    • Was defective boating equipment involved?
    • Was the injured party careless and cause the accident?
    • Did the injured party contributed to his/her own injuries?
    • Was the boat operator acting in compliance with applicable laws and regulations?
    • Was there an inherent danger in the boating activity such as water skiing?

    Who pays for damages due to a boating accident?

    The person who is determined to be at fault pays for the damages. A boat operator is deemed to be at fault if his or her actions were negligent or intentional and caused the accident. Acting in a negligent manner means that the boat operator is deemed not to have acted with reasonable care under the circumstances. For example, if a boat operator was violating applicable safety laws or boating in a reckless manner, even in just a minor fashion, the boat operator can be determined to have been negligent and at fault.

    More than one person may be found negligent in a boating accident case. Each person is responsible for the damages and compensation according to the proportionate level of fault. Some states that are governed by “comparative negligence” laws which will decrease the award amount to the inured party according to the plaintiff’s level of fault. If a party is injured but is determined to have been 25% at fault for an accident, any award they may have received is reduced by 25%, the percentage that the injured party was at fault. Boating accident damages may include property damage, medical expenses, compensation for lost wages, pain and suffering and punitive damages

    Do I need an attorney if I was injured in a boating accident?

    Chances are you will need an attorney if you were involved in a boating accident, more so than with other types of accidents. The reason for this is because boating accident laws are complex. They are also not usually read frequently by most people, who are far more familiar with motor vehicle laws. If you have been injured in a boating accident, it is advisable that you seek a legal consultation with a personal injury lawyer familiar with boating laws. This will ensure that you can preserve your rights to compensation and protect yourself from potential liability and prosecution.
    Accident & Injury Law:
    Boat Accident

    Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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