If you’ve been injured in a North Carolina boating accident, there might be a lot of factors involved in your legal claim.
There’s roughly 322 miles of ocean shoreline in North Carolina and 12,009 miles of estuarine coastline (bays, sounds, and wetlands). In total, there are nearly 5,000 square miles of North Carolina waters.
A number of industries rely on boats — maritime trade and transportation, commercial fishing, tourism and recreation, oil drilling, living resources, and others — but there are also lots of individual people who enjoy boating for recreation.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) reports that there are 17 million recreational boats in the U.S., and that 1 in 10 households owns a boat.
When someone is injured in a car accident, it’s usually because of a collision with another car or a stationary object (like crashing into a tree, guardrail, or house). A boat accident, however, can happen even without any kind of collision or event. Many boat injuries are the result of slip and fall accidents, equipment failure, or turbulence from weather conditions.
What causes boat accidents?
These are 10 of the most common reasons why people suffer boat accident injuries, both in North Carolina and in other states:
- 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 in North Carolina when you’re behind the wheel of a car. It’s also against the law in North Carolina 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.
- Violating navigation rules. If you don’t follow the rules for correct boat navigation, you could collide with other boats or even run aground.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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:
- Coral reefs
- 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 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 functioning CO2 detectors.
North Carolina boat insurance laws and requirements
Boat insurance isn’t required for North Carolina watercraft. However, it’s always a good idea if you’re a boat owner. Insurance can cover both property loss and injuries to passengers. You can purchase insurance for all kinds of watercraft, including sailboats, power boats, yachts, jet skis, and fishing vessels.
As with any insurance policy, you want to tailor your coverage based on your specific uses and needs. These are just some types of available boat insurance coverage commonly offered:
- Emergency assistance in case your boat requires towing or repair, or if you become stranded on the water.
- Liability covers your responsibility for damage to another boater’s vessel or for personal injuries.
- Medical coverage for you or your passengers in a boating accident.
- Property damage covers boat repairs or replacements needed due to an accident.
- Unattached equipment coverage insures repair or replacement of essential equipment that becomes damaged, lost, or is stolen.
- Fuel spill cleanup insurance covers costs related to a fuel or oil spill, including wreckage removal if there’s a debilitating accident on the water.
- Uninsured/underinsured watercraft coverage is just like UI/UIM motorist coverage when driving a car; it provides insurance for bodily injury if you become injured in a boating accident with an uninsured boater.
Liability in a North Carolina boating accident
Most personal injury accidents will be governed by state law. Car accidents, a slip and fall, most workplace accidents, and other personal injuries are usually clear about where they happened, and liability follows the law of the state where the accident occurred.
In addition to there being questions about jurisdiction in the water, there can also be questions about liability.
When a car accident happens, someone is liable even if they weren’t doing something "wrong". A slip and fall that’s the result of negligence, for example, will be the responsibility of the property owner or manager. A workplace accident is the responsibility of the employer.
There’s liability in a boating accident, too. But sometimes it’s hard to determine who the liable party is and what jurisdiction’s laws will control the outcome.
What laws govern North Carolina boat accidents?
The North Carolina Boating Law applies to public water within the territorial limits of the state, which includes the marginal sea adjacent to the state and the high seas if they’re being navigated as part of a journey to or from the North Carolina shores. The law also applies to streams, rivers, lakes and sounds.
In addition, a watercraft that operates on U.S. waters is subject to federal boating laws.
Legal responsibility is assumed to belong to the owner listed on a boat’s registration certificate and identification number.
The person who’s the listed owner is also liable for the negligence of a family member who lives in the same household and operates the boat.
If a boating accident falls under North Carolina’s jurisdiction, then it follows the pure contributory negligence rule. If the plaintiff (the injured person) has any liability for the accident, they can’t recover damages for their injuries.
If the accident is under federal jurisdiction, it follows a comparative negligence standard. If the injured person was at all responsible for their injuries, the damage award is reduced according to the percentage by which the injured person was at fault. In other words, if a defendant was 90% responsible for the accident but the plaintiff was 10% negligent, a damage award of $100,000 would be reduced by 10% and the plaintiff could recover $90,000.
Laws for workers injured at sea
Most U.S. employees are covered under workers’ compensation insurance, which is regulated on a state-by-state basis.
A seaman, fisherman or harbor worker might be covered under the Jones Act. This federal act provides "maintenance and cure" for a worker injured while performing his duties.
Maintenance refers to payment for the injured worker’s room and board during the period of time they’re recovering before they can return to work.
Cure is coverage for expenses for reasonable and necessary medical care until the injured worker reaches maximum medical improvement.
The employer is required to cover these expenses regardless of fault or negligence.
However, if there was negligence on the part of the employer, the Jones Act allows for the injured worker to recover additional compensation under circumstances of extreme unprofessional conduct, failure to provide safe working conditions, failure to warn of dangerous conditions, and similar circumstances.
North Carolina boating laws and regulations
In order to operate a personal watercraft (PWC) in North Carolina, you must successfully complete an approved boating safety education course and be at least 14 years old.
The PWC owner is responsible for ensuring that any person younger than 16 who’s operating the vessel has completed the boating safety course.
North Carolina vessel classes
North Carolina classifies vessels as follows:
Class A: Fewer than 16 feet
Class 2: 26 feet to fewer than 40 feet
Class 1: 16 feet to fewer than 26 feet
Class 3: 40 feet or larger
Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)
Type I: A vest-style flotation device that can turn an unconscious person in the water to vertical or backwards position from face-down with more than 20 pounds of buoyancy.
Type II: These devices go around the neck and fasten in front, and can turn an unconscious person in the water to vertical or backwards position from face-down with more than 15.5 pounds of buoyancy.
Type III: These devices have more than 15.5 pounds of buoyancy, but have less turning ability than a Type II device. They are comfortable for the wearer and are typically used for water skiing, sailing, or other water sports.
Type IV: This device is designed to be thrown to a person on the water. It has at least 16.5 pounds of buoyancy and is usually either a ring buoy or a buoyant cushion.
Type V: These are restricted devices that are only acceptable if the wearer is engaged in a specific activity relative to the device.
PFDs must be Coast Guard-approved, in good condition, readily accessible, and of appropriate size for the wearer.
Legal operation of any vessel in North Carolina
The state of North Carolina has specific laws regarding boats and vessels. Here’s a brief overview:
- Speed limits. Generally, a boater must drive the vessel at a safe speed. Speeding, based on the conditions at the time, is considered reckless operation and violates state law.
- Reckless operation. A motorboat, vessel, water ski, surfboard, or other water-based device must not be used recklessly or negligently in a way that could endanger any person.
- Boating and fishing access areas. A boat entering, leaving, or passing a state-owned boating and fishing access area within 50 yards must travel at no-wake speed.
- Alcohol and drugs. You may not operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Just like driving a car, your blood alcohol content (BAC) must be under 0.08% while driving a boat.
- Law enforcement vessels. All vessels must slow to no-wake speed when passing within 100 feet of a law enforcement vessel flashing its blue light unless the channel is too narrow to do so. In a narrow channel, the distance when passing within 50 feet.
- Boat racing. A boat race, tournament or regatta may be held only after being approved by the Coast Guard District Commander.
Reckless operation of personal watercraft
North Carolina requires "reasonable and prudent" operation of vessels. An operator must not endanger life, limb, or property.
- Unreasonable or unnecessary weaving through vessel traffic
- Jumping the wake of another vessel within 100 feet of the vessel or when there’s limited visibility
- Intentionally approaching another vessel in order to swerve at the last moment to avoid collision (playing "chicken")
- Operating without regard for the rules of the "road" or following too closely behind another vessel
You may not operate a PWC at more than no-wake speed within 100 feet of an anchored or moored vessel, dock, pier, swim float, marked swimming area, swimmers, surfers, anglers, or any manually operated vessel.
Talk to a lawyer after your North Carolina boat accident
Boat accidents can be complicated, and your lawyer should be familiar with both North Carolina laws and federal law in order to make a successful claim.