Boating and Maritime Accidents in Florida

The ins and outs of admiralty law in Florida waters

Did you know that 71% of the Earth is covered in water? This means that maritime and boating laws – the laws of the sea – cover that entire, enormous area. This article focuses on Florida's maritime laws, and how a state's laws work within federal waters.

Nothing sounds better than an afternoon spent boating in Florida, right?

Those afternoons can result in many hours of paperwork for personal injury attorneys, because the laws surrounding boating and maritime accidents are very confusing. Since it's a traditionally fun activity, many people don't think before setting sail – which can mean injuries, property damage and even lost lives.

This might sound dramatic, but there have been far too many cases of maritime and boating accidents.

Even the water itself can get problematic. Go out just a little bit too far, and you're in federal jurisdiction. What happens then? What laws control the situation? Who knows? Let's take a step back and try to look at Florida's boating culture as a whole.

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What is maritime and boating law?

Maritime law (also called admiralty law) is the body of law that governs the entities that operate vessels on the oceans and open waters. This could be anything from insurance claims relating to cargo or civil matters aboard a cruise ship – or even piracy. If Poseidon were real, he would be the head of the governing body, the International Maritime Organization.

Maritime law also regulates licensing and inspection procedures for boats and shipping contracts. There are 171 member states responsible for the enforcement of IMO conventions, and local governments set penalties for infringement. Ships even have their own nationality from where they were registered.

What about Florida?

The state of Florida has many of its own internal regulations because a lot of people like boating. Like, a lot. There are air boats, tugboats, kayaks, watercrafts, jet skis, wave runners, yachts, power boats, motorboats, diving boats, inflatable boats… You get the idea.

Additionally, with the influx of tourists visiting, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission enacted vessel registration regulations on top of animal protection measures so that creatures like manatees and plants like seagrass wouldn't be trampled by boating enthusiasts. 

Vessels must be registered with the local tax collector's office before use. There are also many other internal state laws, including:

  • The reporting of accidents that require more than immediate first aid or that result in more than $2,000 in property damage;
  • Automotive-style factory mufflers for airboats;
  • Vessel speed restrictions;
  • Laws regarding boating under the influence (discussed in more detail below);
  • Those under the age of 14 cannot operate a vehicle;
  • A vehicle cannot be operated ½ hour before dawn or ½ hour after sunset;
  • And several more.

The one thing that remains constant is that the laws are always changing – so make sure to check the current regulations before setting sail.

What other laws govern my boat?

It depends on where your boat is physically located.

In the Atlantic and Keys, state waters extend three nautical miles, and federal admiralty laws extend from the three-mile point to 200 miles outward.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the marker is nine nautical miles before it switches to admiralty law and extends outward. There is always a law, that much is certain, but it truly depends on where you are.

Most of the time, you're not going to be 100% sure of where you are unless you're plunked down in the middle of a lake or you're tied to the shore with a rope. If you're in a lake or inland waterway, then chances are high that a state law – a specific maritime statute or a general personal injury law – governs your case.

However, if you're way out at sea, then federal admiralty law might take over.

Who can be held liable if I am hurt while boating?

This is the typical lawyer answer: “It depends.”

These situations always depend on the circumstances of the accident, and boating is no different. These can include multiple defendants, such as the driver or owner of the boat (if you were a passenger); the driver or owner of the boat that collided with yours; the manufacturer of the boat; the manufacturers of the defective flotation devices; the owner of the marina; and anyone else who negligently contributed to your injuries.

What if I signed a waiver that disclaimed liability?

If you were a visitor to a marina and rented a vessel for the day, you probably signed a waiver that disclaimed liability for the boat owner.

This can be very disheartening if you then find yourself in a boating accident that results in damages to your personal property or other injuries. Depending on the circumstances, this contract might not be enforceable. The contract language will need to be examined, as well as the conditions under which the contract was signed. Don't lose hope just yet.

Drunk boating in Florida

It is illegal in Florida to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol. This doesn't stop people from doing it anyway. Water might hurt less than a road when you hit it, but that doesn't mean you still can't get seriously injured during a high-speed crash.

Just like normal DUI laws, if your blood alcohol level is 0.08 or higher, you will be held liable for causing an accident. So, stick to lemonade and iced tea while yachting and save the beer for the shoreline.

If you're a boating enthusiast who needs to speak with an attorney, try the Enjuris Florida law firm directory!

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