What to Do After a California Boating Accident

California boating accident

If someone’s negligence caused you to be injured while on a boat, you can file a lawsuit for damages.

Sometimes a boat accident is the fault of the boat operator — but sometimes it’s out of anyone’s control. Here’s how to figure out if you can claim damages after a California boating accident injury.

The California coastline is 840 miles long. It’s the fifth-longest coastline in the U.S., after Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, and Maine.

The marine and maritime industry draws a lot of Californians, both as recreational boaters and in oceangoing occupations like longshoring, drilling, sailing and others.

According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, there are over 40,000 jobs associated with recreational boating in California, and boating-related activities and services contribute around $13 billion to the state’s economy.

It’s no surprise that some boaters are more experienced than others, and — like driving a car — operating a boat requires skill, practice, and common sense in order to stay safe.

California boater requirements

Every boat operator in California must pass a state-approved boater safety education exam given by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. After you’ve passed the test, the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) issues you a California Boater Card.

Facing factsIn 2015, there were 724 accidents reported involving California recreational boats, and 49 boaters died. There were 232 reported boater injuries that were severe enough to require more than basic first aid treatment.

The requirement for all boaters to have a California Boater Card is being implemented gradually based on the boater’s age. As of January 1, 2019, every boater age 25 or younger is required to have one.

Here’s the schedule for when you’ll need to have a California boater card based on your age:

California boater card requirements
Date Age range
January 1, 2020 35 years old or younger
January 1, 2021 40 years old or younger
January 1, 2022 45 years old or younger
January 1, 2023 50 years old or younger
January 1, 2024 60 years old or younger
January 1, 2025 All boaters of any age


Enjuris tip: You can read more FAQs about California Boater Card requirements, exceptions, and costs.

Common causes of boating accidents

Boating injuries commonly occur from:

The best way to prevent a boat accident is to understand why they happen. Here are 10 of the most common reasons why boat accidents occur:

  1. Operator error. Just like distracted driving is a hazard on the road, so is distracted navigation on the water. A boat operator should always monitor the physical condition of the boat, weather, water depth or other environmental conditions, and other hazards.
  2. Operator inexperience. Experience matters. The U.S. Coast Guard says inexperience is one of the top 3 reasons why boat accidents happen. In addition to understanding how to drive your boat, you also need to be prepared for the unexpected and know how to quickly modify your course or react in an emergency.
  3. Boating under the influence. We all know that DUI is illegal in California when you’re behind the wheel of a car. It’s also against the law in California to operate a boat or any other marine vessel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

    A “vessel” includes any watercraft, including motorboats, sailboats, and jet skis. It’s against the law to operate a boat if you’re impaired to an “appreciable degree” or if your blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08% or higher for a recreational vessel and 0.04% for non-recreational vessels.
  4. Violating navigation rules. If you don’t follow the rules for correct boat navigation, you could collide with other boats or even run aground.
  5. Lookout failures. A boat operator should have a lookout onboard. Because operating a boat is a big job, it’s helpful to have another person who knows how to be on the lookout for threats or hazards. That person needs to take the responsibility seriously and be reliable in looking for what’s ahead of and behind the boat.
  6. Speeding. When you speed, you have less time to react if there’s a hazard in your path. If you’re an experienced boater, it’s important to remember that not every boater will be as skilled or as experienced. They might not gauge speed accurately as you approach, or they might not be able to maneuver as smoothly or quickly as they should. Therefore, maintaining a reasonable speed keeps everyone safe.
  7. Equipment failure. The owner of a boat is responsible for making sure that everything is working properly and the vessel has been properly maintained. Even if you’re renting a boat for a few hours, do a quick inspection before you head out to make sure it looks like the crucial systems are in good working condition.
  8. Weather conditions. Whether you’re boating on the ocean, a lake, or any body of water, it’s important to check the weather before you go. Storms can approach quickly and with little warning. Consider downloading an app that sends you notifications of weather alerts.
  9. Waves or wakes. A “wake” is a water disturbance caused by the force of the boat’s hull or from the forces of other boats nearby. If you’re unprepared to maneuver your boat through a large wave or wake, it can cause you to capsize or collide.
  10. Hazardous water conditions. There are some water hazards that you can prepare for ahead of time. Understanding tides, knowing the depth of the water, and having a map of where rocks and other permanent obstacles are located is important.

    There are circumstances when water conditions might change quickly, and you need to be able to manage those, too. For example, a wind-against-tide condition increases the wind speed you’re experiencing and creates short, steep waves that could be dangerous. When the wind and tide are moving in the same direction, the effective wind speed is slower.

    Common examples of water hazards include:
    • Wrecks
    • Obstructions
    • Rocks
    • Islets
    • Coral reefs
    • Breakers
    • Spoil areas

There are other hazards associated with boating that you might not have considered. While less common, they can be equally dangerous.

  • Electrocution. Many marinas offer cable, wifi, and electricity. You can charge your boat battery, power lights or appliances, and perform other functions. But dock wiring can produce a stray electrical current and the electrical fault from a boat could energize the water. If a person is swimming or in the water nearby, they could be electrocuted. They can also be paralyzed by the electrical field, which can result in drowning (known as electrical shock drowning, or ESD).

    Further complicating the situation is the fact that a rescuer who enters the water can also sustain an electrical shock with paralyzing effects. This hazard happens in freshwater marinas (lakes or rivers), but not in salt water.
  • Carbon monoxide. CO2 is a colorless, odorless gas that is a poisonous byproduct of gasoline or diesel. Any boat with an engine or generator, including outboard motors, produces carbon monoxide. Every boat with enclosed compartments must be equipped with CO2 detectors.

California boating laws

Every boat operator in California must follow both state and federal laws.

California maritime law prohibits operation of any vessel in a way that’s reckless or negligent, or that endangers life, limb, or property of any person.

A boat operator is also required to drive the boat at a speed that’s reasonable based on traffic, weather, visibility, and the presence of other hazards. You may not endanger swimmers, occupants of your boat, or the occupants of any other boat.

The Federal Boat Safety Act requires the following Coast Guard-approved safety devices on every vessel:

  • Gas ventilation devices
  • Flame arresters
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Visual distress signals
  • Sound-producing devices
  • Personal floatation devices (PFDs) or life jackets for each person

Determining liability in a boating accident

When someone is injured in a car crash, it’s usually because at least one of the drivers (if not both) could’ve done something differently that might have avoided the accident. Boating is different because there are often forces of nature involved — more than you’d typically have during a car crash that’s not weather-related.

If you or a passenger are injured because your boat hits another boat’s wake, is hit by a wave, or hits a submerged object like a rock or land mass, who’s at fault?

In general, you need to establish a party’s negligence in order to recover damages for a boating injury.

But an injury, alone, doesn’t mean that someone was negligent. To be considered negligent, a person must have acted without reasonable care, and that action or failure to act was the cause of the injury.

Enjuris tip: Read more about California fault, liability, and negligence.

If you’re injured in a car accident, your first step is probably to try to settle your claim with the negligent driver’s insurance company. In California, though, it’s not required to have insurance for a boat. Therefore, if you’ve been injured by a boat operator’s negligence, the only way to pursue your costs for medical treatment, property damage, or other losses is through the legal system.

Collisions with another boat

If you’ve suffered an injury in a collision with another boat, you’d establish negligence the same way you might after a car accident. If one boat operator is at fault for the collision, they could be found negligent and responsible for paying damages to the injured person.

Enjuris tip: A motorboat operator is more likely to be at fault in a collision between a motorboat and a sailboat because sailboats have the right of way.

Injury caused by another boat’s wake

Boat passengers can be injured when a jolt from a wave or wake knocks them down, throws them out of a seat, or even tosses them overboard. Although boating regulations require that the operator needs to keep a lookout for any hazard, there are other factors like:

  • Speed of the boat
  • Size of the wake
  • Visibility of the wake
  • Type of boat (motorboat or sailboat)
  • Whether passengers were warned by the boat operator
  • Boat traffic in the immediate vicinity

If the boat operator failed to consider any of these factors, they could be held negligent. In addition, if the wake was created by another boat, that operator could be negligent if they were operating in a no-wake zone or violating boating safety regulations.

If an injury or accident happens because the boat hits a wave, it’s possible that no one is negligent.

Jurisdiction for a boat accident

If you’re considering a personal injury lawsuit after a boat accident, it’s important to determine which court has jurisdiction (in other words, where to file your lawsuit).

Most personal injury cases begin in state trial courts and only go to federal court if there’s an appeal.

However, Article III of the U.S. Constitution says that the federal court system has original jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases. This means your boating accident case would likely first originate in the federal court and doesn’t need to go through the state court. All damages or injuries, including property damage, caused by vessels on the high seas or navigable waters is usually resolved in federal court.

The “high seas” is beyond the jurisdiction of any country, and navigable waters are those in interstate or foreign commerce.

The only scenario where a state court might have jurisdiction in a boating accident is if it’s a personal lawsuit against the owner of a boat.

There are a lot of exceptions and nuances when it comes to boating injury jurisdiction. A personal injury lawyer will be the best person to advise you about where your lawsuit should be filed.

Finding a California boating accident lawyer

A boat accident can be complicated when it comes to establishing negligence, jurisdiction, and other factors. It might require weather analysts and other expert witnesses to establish what the conditions were at the time of the injury, among other things.

A California personal injury lawyer can get the answers and damages you need to recover from a boat accident injury. The Enjuris Directory of California personal injury lawyers is the perfect place to look for an experienced, compassionate attorney who will get you results after a boat accident.

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