Who's at fault if you have a boating accident? It depends on a variety of factors, including weather conditions, your actions, and those of other boaters.
As a Michiganian (or Michigander, depending on who you ask), you’re uniquely situated with ample opportunities for boating on 4 of the 5 U.S. Great Lakes. Michigan also has more than 11,000 inland lakes. You might enjoy recreational boating or be part of the workforce for tourism, shipping, or other industries that are part of the Great Lakes economy.
Because of the nature of the Great Lakes as being along the borders of several states and Canada, there are some interesting questions about what body of law makes rules for boating and who governs if there’s an injury on the water that leads to a lawsuit.
Jurisdiction in a Great Lakes boating accident
Jurisdiction refers to where (in what court) you’re permitted to file a lawsuit. In most personal injury cases, there’s no dispute about where the accident happened. For example, if you’re in a car accident, have a slip-and-fall, or suffer another premises liability accident, or similar, you likely know where you were when you were injured.
But when you’re on a body of water that lies between 2 states (or countries), jurisdiction can be a little more difficult to determine and might involve a multi-state lawsuit, which is a case that involves parties who are linked to more than one state.
Most personal injury lawsuits are tried in state courts and only go to federal court on 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 are usually resolved in federal court.
The Great Lakes are internal waters because they’re not part of the sea. However, federal courts treat the Great Lakes as “high seas” for federal admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. The “high seas” are 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.
For instance, if you are injured in a Michigan boating accident on one of the state’s inland lakes, you probably will file your lawsuit in the Circuit Court in the county where the accident happened, just like you would if it was a car accident.
If, however, your injury happened on one of the Great Lakes or a river that connects to the Great Lakes, you might be able to file a lawsuit in federal court because of admiralty/maritime jurisdiction. There are some instances where federal law might result in a more favorable outcome than state law. These are complicated issues and you’ll need to consult a knowledgeable personal injury attorney to determine where to file your case.
Injuries to boat workers
If you’re injured on land or on a boat while performing tasks related to your job, you can receive compensation through your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance benefits.
If you’re not covered by workers’ compensation, you might be entitled to benefits under the Federal Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA).
The LHWCA applies to any person engaged in maritime employment, including:
- Workers in longshoring operations
- Harbor workers
- Workers who do ship repair, shipbuilding, or ship-breaking
LHWCA benefits include payment of lost wages, medical care, and vocational rehabilitation services to employees who are injured on the water.
A surviving spouse and children are entitled to death benefits based on the workers’ average weekly wages and will vary on a case-by-case basis.
Proving liability in Michigan boat injury lawsuits
A personal injury lawsuit arising from a boat accident is based on 5 elements:
- Duty. A person or entity had a responsibility to protect or avoid harm to someone else. This can be a duty to someone you’ve never met. For instance, a person operating a boat has a responsibility to follow safe boating laws and regulations to avoid injuring any other person on their vessel, on another vessel or in the water.
- Breach. A breach of duty happens when the liable party’s action or inaction violates their responsibility to avoid harm.
- Causation. An injured person must prove that the defendant’s breach directly caused their injury.
- Injury. In order to file a lawsuit, you have to have an injury. You might be angry that an accident happened and might even believe that another boater was negligent. But if there’s not an actual injury, you don’t have a cause of action (lawsuit).
- Damages. Your injury has to cost money. The purpose of personal injury lawsuits is to make a plaintiff whole again, or to restore them to the financial condition they would be in if the accident had never happened.
In order to file a lawsuit, you’ll want to determine who’s liable (at fault) based on how the accident happened.
Damages (compensation) for a boat accident
Damages for a boat injury claim can include costs for:
- Medical treatment
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
- Property loss
- Wrongful death
- Other expenses related to the loss
Common causes of boating accidents
Boating injuries commonly occur from:
- Slip and fall accidents on wet surfaces
- Boat collisions
- Sinking or tipping
The best way to prevent boat accidents is to understand why they happen. Here are 10 of the most common reasons why boat accidents occur:
- 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.
- 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.
- Boating under the influence. We all know that DUI is illegal when you’re behind the wheel of a car. Michigan also has a law against boating under the influence (BUI). You’re not permitted to operate a motorboat if your blood alcohol content (BAC) is .08% or higher, which is the same limit for driving a car. The law also says you can be convicted of BWVI, or boating while visibly impaired by drugs or alcohol.
- Violating navigation rules. If you don’t follow the rules for correct boat navigation, you could collide with other boats or run aground.
- Lookout failures. A boat operator should always have a lookout onboard. Because operating a boat is an important 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 checking for hazards ahead of and behind the boat.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Waves or wakes. A “wake” is a water disturbance caused by the force of the boat’s hull or by 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.
- Hazardous water conditions. There are some water hazards that you can prepare for ahead of time. Knowing the depth of the water and having a map of where rocks and other permanent obstacles are located is important.
Electrocution and carbon monoxide poisoning
Electrocution and carbon monoxide poisoning are serious hazards that many boaters don’t consider, but it’s important to be aware of how you and your passengers might be affected.
Electrocution. Many marinas offer cable, wifi, and electricity to 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. Swimmers 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 saltwater.
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 working CO2 detectors.
Michigan boat laws
Before you set sail, you should be familiar with all of the laws and regulations that govern boating in Michigan. In addition, there are some county rules that apply to inland lakes, so check the local regulations before you go.
Some of these laws include:
Age requirements for operating a boat
A child under 12 years old may operate a boat with no more than 6 horsepower with no restrictions. If the boat has more than 6 horsepower but fewer than 35, a child under 12 can only operate it if they have a boating safety certificate onboard with them and are directly supervised by someone who is 16 or older. A child under 12 is never permitted to operate a boat with more than 35 horsepower under any circumstances.
Any person born after July 1, 1996 may operate a boat only if they have a boating safety certificate onboard. If you were born prior to that date, you may operate a boat without restrictions.
Operating a personal watercraft
A personal watercraft is a jet ski, wave runner, or similar vehicle. You must be 14 years old or older to operate a personal watercraft. A child who is 14 or 15 may operate a PWC if they have a boating safety certificate and:
- Are accompanied by a parent, legal guardian, or someone who is 21 or older and is designated by the parent or legal guardian, or
- Is operating the PWC at a distance of 100 feet or fewer from their parent, guardian, or a designated adult.
Anyone who is at least 16 years old and who is born after Dec. 31, 1978 may legally operate a PWC with a boating safety certificate. A person born before that date may do so with no restrictions.
Each vessel must carry Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.
- A vessel must have a PFD for each person. PFDs should be the appropriate size and fit based on a person’s weight and chest size.
- All children under 6 years old must wear a Type I or Type II PFD while riding on the open deck of a boat.
- A vessel that’s fewer than 16 feet long, or a canoe or kayak, can have either a wearable or throwable PFD for each person.
- For a vessel 16 feet or longer, there must be 1 throwable PFD for the boat in addition to the wearable PFDs for each person on board.
- Any person riding a personal watercraft or being towed by a personal watercraft must wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD that is not an inflatable flotation device.
- All PFDs must be in good condition and easily accessible.
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 (unless the crash was 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 landmass, 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 breached their duty, and that action or failure to act was the cause of the injury.
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 another boat operator is at fault for the collision, they could be found negligent and responsible for paying damages to the injured person.
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 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.
Since there are unique issues for boat liability and injuries that are different from other types of accidents, you’ll want to talk to an experienced lawyer who knows how to sort it out. Jurisdictional issues, liability concerns, maritime law, and other factors can make a “simple” boat accident injury into a complicated legal case.