Proving Liability After A Boating Accident

More than 900,000 boats and other marine vessels are registered in the state of Florida, and summer is peak boating season.

Our state’s majestic lakes, streams, and waterways – as well as our sparkling coastlines – are almost always delightful, but there can also be a darker side to boating. T

The U.S. Coast Guard reports that in 2016, more than 4,000 recreational boating accidents in the United States resulted in 701 fatalities, 2,903 serious injuries, and approximately $49 million worth of damage to property. This is where our motor vehicle law firm can help.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that Florida leads the nation in boating accidents and fatalities.

If you are injured while you are on a boat in Florida waters, what are your rights, and what is your legal recourse? Every case is different, so you’ll need the specific advice that an experienced West Palm Beach personal injury attorney can provide regarding your individual circumstances.

But generally speaking, if you are injured while you’re on a motorboat or a sailboat because that boat’s operator – or another boat’s operator – was negligent, you are entitled under Florida law to complete compensation for your medical treatment, lost wages, and all other accident- and injury-related losses and damages.


However, being “entitled” to compensation for injuries doesn’t mean the compensation is automatic. To recover compensation after a boating injury, you must be prepared to prove, with the help of a personal injury lawyer, that your injuries are due to another party’s negligence.

Simply getting injured is not legal grounds for proving negligence. Negligence is someone’s specific failure to act with reasonable care.

To understand how a personal injury claim for a boating injury would work, let’s first touch on the principal categories of boating accidents:

  • your boat hits a submerged object, rock, or land
  • your boat hits a wave or another boat’s wake
  • your boat hits or is hit by another boat

Almost always, when two motorboats collide, the operators of both are at least partially liable. In such a case, injured passengers may have a legal claim against both operators.

If anyone operating the boat is injured, he or she will have a valid personal injury claim against the opposing operator, only if the operator that was injured was less than 50% at fault for the accident.

For accidents between a sailboat and a motorboat, the non-sailboat operator is probably the liable party, since safely operating boats demands motorboats to stay out of a sailboat’s way.

In the event that a boat collides with a wave or a large wake, the impact can knock riders over or even throw passengers overboard. Who is at fault for a wake collision or a wave accident can be hard to determine, as it is not immediately apparent.

Boating laws and typical safety guidelines require a boat’s operator to stay alert for whatever could possibly pose a hazard, but liability in a wave accident or a wake accident will hinge on factors including:

  • the type of boat
  • the speed of the boat
  • the size of the wave or wake
  • visibility in the area at the time
  • other boats in the water at the time
  • if the operator let passengers be aware that a wave or wake accident was imminent

If another boat produced the wake that causes a crash, that boat’s operator might also be liable, but it all depends on the precise details.

If a boat was speeding through dense boat traffic and leaving a huge wake, that operator could be found liable for producing an enormous wake, but in other circumstances, there might, in fact, be no one at fault.

In a wave accident, without other boats involved, whether or not the operator was at fault does again depend on the precise details of the incident.

Even in good weather with no nearby boat traffic, a boat can hit something that’s submerged. In bad weather with low visibility, a boat can also hit a jetty or even run aground. And once again, an operator’s liability will depend on the particulars of the accident.

If you’re using nautical charts, moving at a reasonable speed, and boating cautiously, if you hit a rock or an object, there’s probably not going to be a finding of negligence.

But a boater who hits something and injures someone while speeding through a thick fog with no charts and no GPS device is very probably going to be found negligent.


State law in Florida, as well as federal law, requires even the smallest pleasure boats and commercial boats to carry safety equipment that includes life jackets for everyone on board, flares, navigational lights, lifesaver rings, blatant whistles, as well as fire extinguishers.

If a boat is disabled or if someone tumbles overboard, the safety equipment on a boat could make the difference between life and death, and any lack of safety equipment could generate a negligence claim against the boat’s owner and/or operator.

Legally speaking, if you are injured in a boating accident in Florida waters because of a boat operator’s negligence, it’s just like being injured in a traffic accident because of a driver’s negligence.

If you can prove that a boat operator was negligent, and if you can prove that the negligence was a direct cause of your injury or injuries, you are entitled to complete compensation for:

  • all past, present, and future medical treatment, therapy, and rehabilitation
    disability, amputation, or disfigurement
  • all present, past, and future lost wages including the loss of future earning capacity
  • all past, present, and future pain and suffering
  • the loss of the “enjoyment of life”


However, even when a boat operator could be found liable for your injury or injuries, it’s possible that you may not receive compensation. If the boat operator has no boaters’ insurance nor any assets, they will have no ability to pay.

Auto insurance does not cover boats, and while homeowner’s insurance might provide coverage for boating injuries, not everyone carries homeowner’s insurance, and not all homeowners have boating coverage.

You won’t be able to file a claim through your own homeowner’s insurance for a boating injury, either. Homeowners’ policies usually do not cover the negligence of others who are uninsured.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, alcohol is the key factor in fifteen percent of all fatal boating accidents. If you are injured because a boat operator was intoxicated, and if that operator is convicted in Florida on the criminal charge of boating under the influence, that conviction will be powerful evidence on your behalf in a personal injury case.

If you’re injured in a South Florida boating accident, an experienced West Palm Beach personal injury attorney can provide the legal advice you need, recommend your best course of legal action, and if necessary, advocate aggressively for the compensation and justice you need and deserve.