In a state with easy access to the Atlantic Ocean and numerous lakes, it isn’t uncommon for residents to enjoy recreational boating and similar activities with family and friends. Whether it’s using boats, jet skis, or alternative watercraft, New York is a hotspot for those wishing to experience the joy of riding across open waters. However, these activities carry unique risks and liabilities for those involved. If injured in a boating accident, it’s good to know what insurance and legal options are available.
For perspective, the United States Coast Guard reported over 4,000 accidents related to recreational boating in 2019 alone. Over 550 of those accidents involved a tragic loss of life, with 613 individuals never returning home to their families. A further 2,559 individuals suffered injuries proven to be the result of accidents that could have been avoided if those responsible had been more careful. In New York alone, a total of 165 watercraft accidents occurred throughout 2019, with 17 individuals dying and 119 suffering non-fatal injuries.
In all of these cases, it is the right of the wronged and their loved ones to seek compensation for the pain they endured due to the actions of others. While money will never bring back the ones you lost, compensation will help you handle the unexpected financial burdens of your losses. In New York, over five million dollars was paid in damages to those experiencing personal injury or loss in a boating accident in 2019. If you find yourself in such a position, don’t be reluctant to demand compensation for injuries.
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Laws Covering Boating and Boating Accidents
Both federal and state regulations are in place to govern the practice of recreational boating and manage the reporting of boating accidents at sea. Federal statutes provide a set of general rules and practices that all states must adhere to in their own statutes, but may build upon to serve their particular needs.
For the purposes of federal statutes, the United States Code consolidates the general and permanent federal statutes which apply to maritime activities. The section of the code applying to recreational boating is found in Title 46, subtitle II – Vessels and Seamen (46 U.S.C. §§ 2101-15109). These statutes include general provisions for the operation of vessels, rules for regulations and inspection of vessels, procedures for reporting and investigating marine casualties, identification of vessels, and requirements for state boating safety programs.
Additionally, subtitle III – Maritime Liability (46 U.S.C. §§ 30101-31343) establishes the general principles of liability for boating accidents. In particular, Public Vessels Act 46 U.S.C. §§ 31101-31113 covers liability for accidents involving public vessels. These federal statutes are essential to decisions made during a personal injury lawsuit.
New York has also passed its own state-specific regulations for boating, including for determining liability in various circumstances. These regulations are found in the New York State Navigation Law (NAV), and an attorney experienced in personal injury resulting from boating accidents can guide you through the information when an accident occurs.
If one of these regulations is violated and an accident occurs, the guilty party will have additional liability assigned to them by the court in most cases. Additionally, they will receive either a ticket for their violation or a misdemeanor charge, which will impose a fine, imprisonment, or both. These punishments are generally listed in NY Nav L § 73-B and NY Nav L § 73-C, unless an offense has another punishment given in its governing statute. This table provides a summary:
7 to 30 days
30 to 120 days
Be aware that most criminal statutes explicitly apply to matters of boating as they do on land or have an equivalent statute under the Navigation Law with similar punishments. For instance, leaving the scene of a boating accident without reporting is a separate offense from leaving the scene of a car accident without reporting under NY Nav L § 47, but the two have the same classifications and punishments.
Determining Liability in a Boating Accident
When a boating accident occurs and a passenger is injured, it is important to recall what led up to the accident. Such information will help to determine liability in any personal injury case, but especially in the case of boating accidents where it can be difficult to reconstruct an accident on constantly flowing and changing waterways. Here are a series of key questions that a boating victim and his/her attorney will want to address:
- Was the operator irresponsible in handling their vessel?
- Obviously, a vessel’s operator is the first individual to be questioned on the matter of how and why a boating accident occurred, as their actions are often the ones which most affect how a voyage goes. Try to recall how the boat operator acted and treated their position. Did they act in a reckless or irresponsible manner, frequently ignoring their position’s duties, or were they in control of themselves and of the vessel at all times? If the former, you may have a case against the operator as the liable party.
- Petition of Liebler saw a boat operator be held liable for the death of a young woman due to both his error in judgment and his irresponsible piloting. The operator had allowed the young woman to sit on the deck of his vessel when he should have known that the position was unsafe. After taking her aboard, the operator piloted his vessel in sharp motions that caused the passenger to be flung from the vessel, leading to her injury by the boat’s propellers and eventual death. The court incorporated his stated behaviors as a pilot into a consideration and found him liable for her death.
- Was the operator boating under the influence?
- New York has laws governing the usage of alcohol and narcotics while operating a vessel. NY Nav L § 49-A explicitly prohibits the operation of vessels while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic, or habit-producing drug or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or more by weight of alcohol. The regulations are even stricter if it is a public vessel, the limit for BAC being set at 0.04%. In cases where this does occur with personal injury resulting, there is a strong case against the operator and/or owner for damages incurred due to the criminal act.
- Was the accident caused by human error, and if so, whose error was it?
- While not necessarily considered liability for those who erred, details such as a mistake in judging the depth of water and similar errors can be used to determine fault for an accident. It is important to note that ignorance of factors does not mean that one is free of responsibility for considering them. Of course, there are reasonable exceptions to be made based on circumstances. As previously mentioned, the boat operator in Petition of Liebler was held liable for a young woman’s death as a result of his error in judgment. As an experienced pilot who was familiar with the vessel, as it belonged to his spouse, the operator should have known that her position was unsafe and could lead to her being put in harm’s way. Because the unsafe conditions were allowed by the operator of the vessel, the court held him liable for the damages.
- Was the boat seaworthy, and was it equipped properly with safety gear?
- Every operator and owner is responsible for ensuring the seaworthiness of their vessel, and they should regularly perform inspections of it for flaws that may lead to boating accidents. If they discover things such as damage or details that make the vessel unsuited for a particular day of boating, then they should not embark until the issues are fixed. Additionally, they must be prepared for emergency situations which call for the use of items such as life jackets. If deaths were to occur as a result of a boating accident in which safety gear was inadequate or in short supply, there is almost certainly a case to be made against the operator and owner.
- Was the boat defective in some way?
- This is almost certainly a detail that would need to be investigated by a trained professional, as most individuals do not have the expertise necessary to inquire about such technical details. When an owner acquired a vessel, they may not have been made aware of a flaw present in the underlying design of the vessel. If that flaw was instrumental in causing an accident, then it would not be the sole fault of the operator or the owner, if any blame at all fell to them. Instead, liability would fall, at least in part, on the designers of the vessel and the sellers of it for providing a defective product.
- Was the operator trained and licensed in utilizing their vessel?
- New York requires that all operators of mechanically-powered vessels such as motor boats and personal watercraft be trained in their operation with certain exceptions. If an operator is not trained or licensed and does not fall into an exemption listed in NY Nav L § 49, he/she will be guilty of breaking the law and face fines and/or imprisonment. Of course, this also implies that they are at fault, at least in part, for any accident that occurs while they operate a vessel. This fault also falls to any owner who allows an untrained or uncertified individual to operate their vessel without fulfilling a specified exception.
- Of course, these questions are easily answered only if you were a passenger on the responsible party’s vessel. If you were operating a separate vessel or were a passenger on a separate vessel, you will have to rely upon police reports and other eyewitnesses in order to answer these questions. You will also have to consider if multiple individuals are liable for the damages. Additionally, New York uses a pure comparative fault model, in which an injured party’s liability can limit their compensation during litigation.
- An owner’s liability can also be limited under 46 U.S.C.App. § 183 if an accident occurs without their knowledge. However, an owner must petition a district court of a reasonable jurisdiction for this limitation within six months of receiving notice of the accident. In the case of Complaint of Bayview Charter Boats, the plaintiff failed to make their petition for limiting their liability prior to the six-month deadline. As such, their motion was dismissed by the court, allowing the defendant who had been injured in an accident with the plaintiff’s boat to pursue compensation from the plaintiff in a state court.
- An attorney will be able to handle the necessary investigations and filing of motions in order to discover the cause of a boating accident resulting in personal injury. Additionally, an attorney is capable of representing the facts of the case for you, providing the best arguments supporting the liability of those responsible. No matter what the facts of your case are, if you are injured in a boating accident due to the actions of another, you are entitled to seek compensation from them. Generally, claims are filed with insurance companies to cover your injuries, or damages are covered by filing a lawsuit against those liable.
Seeking Compensation Through Insurance
Unlike auto insurance, owners of vessels in New York are not required to purchase boat insurance, which will usually include boat liability insurance. A victim cannot be certain of the exact compensation they may receive from an owner or operator through their insurance, as no minimum coverage is required. However, a reasonable owner and operator will have coverage to protect themselves and their property, as they are required by law to pay for damage they are found liable for.
If you are injured in a boating accident caused by someone with boat liability insurance, you should be aware that such insurance generally includes two types of coverage. First, watercraft bodily injury liability will cover medical expenses and lost wages for those injured by the policyholder with their watercraft. Second, watercraft property damage liability coverage will cover the costs for repairs and replacement of property damaged by the policyholder with their watercraft. Both of these will have compensation limits, but outside of unusual circumstances, you should expect these policies to cover your expenses as a result of another’s mistake.
If you are liable for an accident and have boat insurance, make sure that you understand your policy’s terms, limitations, and exclusions. A policy may include exceptions that limit or eliminate its coverage based upon who was injured during an accident.
Additionally, a liable party’s homeowner’s insurance may cover expenses due to boating accidents. These policies will often include a limited amount of coverage for boats and other watercraft owned by the policyholder. However, this coverage is not required to cover injuries and accidents, so you will need to speak with an attorney who can investigate the liable party’s homeowner’s policy for applicability to your case.
Finally, the boating victim’s own health insurance may pay for medical expenses and lost wages. If your health insurance policy will cover injuries suffered in an accident, it will generally be the primary payer for your expenses. However, if your costs exceed your coverage, then you will need to recover damages from the liable party. Of course, even if your costs are covered, your insurance company may seek to recover costs from a liable party as is generally their right.
Can I Sue the State?
New York has given up the right of sovereign immunity that it is entitled to as a state. This is covered under Section 8 of the Court of Claims Act, and the Act covers the process and limitation in greater detail. However, state and local government entities may argue for qualified immunity for actions or lack of action taken by their employees in service to government functions. A court is generally necessary in these cases to determine if the negligence that causes a particular accident is subject to such immunity.
In situations that may involve the State of New York, it is best that you contact a professional attorney experienced in handling the intricacies of the government’s liability limitations when considering a suit against the government for personal injury in a boating accident.
Types of Boating Accidents and Statistics
Despite being grouped together under a single phrase (boating accidents), no two watercraft accidents are ever quite the same due to the numerous circumstances both within and outside of one’s control. The most obvious circumstances within the control of individuals, the choice of vessel, is itself a broad category as there are over a dozen recognized categories of vessels by the United State Coast Guard. These include the following seven most common, shown alongside the total number of deaths and injuries involving them in 2019.
Based upon the data, it seems natural to focus on open motorboats and personal watercraft, which include jet skis. They are the two sets of vehicles with the highest combined number of deaths and injuries in 2019, and they are often the first vessels to come to mind when thinking about boating accidents. However, one must also consider if these vessels were rented or privately owned at the time of usage and if they were operated by the legal renter or owner at the time of the accident.
In addition, consideration must be given to the primary factors leading to an accident. Was it a case of human error in judgment? Had the weather turned against the victims at the worst possible time? Did mechanical problems occur, and if so, could they have been handled with reasonable preventative maintenance? Was it a case of boating under the influence that led to a tragic outcome? All of these and many more are quite possible scenarios in boating accidents.
Many of the primary factors for boating accidents can be prevented with responsible behavior in operating a vessel. But when responsible behavior isn’t practiced, what sorts of accidents do they lead to? The seven most common types of accidents in 2019 were:
These sorts of details may seem unimportant to a victim of a boating accident. However, by taking steps to learn about the cause of negligence, experienced attorneys can evaluate an injured person’s situation and determine if he/she may be entitled to compensation. They will be able to uncover the true cause of an accident through well-practiced investigative methods, then file a claim.
Frequently Asked Questions
First off, unless there is a medical emergency, do not try to leave the scene of the accident or the closest safe location. As a part of reporting procedures, you will need to make a statement to the police on what occurred from your perspective. These statements are essential to the investigation process.
If another operator or owner is at-fault for the accident, you will need to collect their information and prepare for filing a claim against them and their insurance company for damages. Responsible operators and owners will generally have boat liability coverage, and that coverage is specifically meant to pay for the damages resulting from their actions. However, that coverage has no set minimum amount, so be prepared to work with an attorney to determine what their policies are.
No matter what the circumstances, speak with an experienced personal injuries attorney in the aftermath of a boating accident. They will be able to walk you through the process of filing claims and collecting necessary information for your case, and they will be able to represent you during the following negotiations to claim your compensation.
The laws and rulings on the subject of personal injury from boating accidents will still apply to your case, and you should work with an attorney to discover information about the at-fault party’s actions and insurance. The questions asked of you will be somewhat different because you were not aboard the operating vessel.
Instead, you will be asked questions about your actions while swimming. There will be questions about if the waterway was cleared for safe swimming or not, and you will also be asked if you were aware of its usage by watercraft and had taken reasonable action to avoid those vessels. Make sure that you are perfectly honest when answering these questions, as your answers will help to determine liability and will be held against you if found to be false or misleading.
This depends on the complexity of your particular case and if it goes to litigation rather than being settled out of court with the at-fault party’s insurance company. Negotiations require a collection of eyewitness testimony, police reports, and other documents relating to the incident and the insurance claims being made before talks occur. As such, pre-litigation negotiations alone can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months.
Most cases will be settled out of court through negotiations, but there are always exceptions. If it goes to litigation, the legal process of discovery will begin as the courts attempt to discover the truth. This process may take anywhere from a few months to an entire year, and negotiations will continue during this period as cases become clearer.
Once discovery has taken place, all relevant information and arguments will be presented to a judge and jury for consideration. Your attorney will work to prove the validity and strength of your claims before an impartial set of arbitrators, and this process may take several months to a year as well. Finally, if a judgment is rendered by the court without a negotiated settlement, either party may appeal it to a higher court for consideration.
All in all, the settlement process could take anywhere from a few months to several years depending on the complexity of a case. However, do not be persuaded by an insurance company to accept a quick and easy settlement before speaking with an attorney. By accepting settlement, you give up your right to pursue further legal action in the matter, even if you are underpaid for the injuries sustained. Always speak with an attorney experienced in personal injury cases and boating accident cases before making key decisions.
In certain cases, negligence by state officials in operating and maintaining waterways and lakes that leads to boating accidents can leave the state liable for injuries. However, New York has certain protections against claims that may limit or eliminate the government’s liability for these injuries. You should take the time to seek legal consultation in these manners, as it can be especially difficult in these cases to determine if liability means that you will receive compensation.
What Should I Do if I’ve Been Injured in a Boating Accident?
If you or a loved one have been injured in a boating accident, contact Rosenblum Law for a free, no-obligation consultation today. Our experienced personal injury attorneys can analyze the situation and negotiate the best possible settlement for you. Call 888-815-3649 or email us today.