Pennsylvania Boat Accidents

Pennsylvania boating laws and lawsuits

PA boating laws and how they apply to accidents on the water

If you’re injured in a boating accident in Pennsylvania, you may be able to recover damages. Here’s what you need to know.

Pennsylvania may not be the first state that comes to mind when you think about boating.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvania has 85,000 miles of rivers and streams, along with 76 natural lakes. Lake Erie alone has more than 735 square miles of prime-boating water within Pennsylvania borders.

Just like motor vehicles, certain laws apply to boats that may impact liability when an accident or injury occurs. Let’s take a look at what you need to know about boat accidents in the Keystone State.

Facing factsThere were 306,781 boats registered in Pennsylvania in 2018, and the state saw more boating accidents over the last 5 years than 30 other states.

Types (classes) of boats of Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, boats are classified by length (horizontal distance from bow to stem). This classification determines things like how old a person has to be to operate the boat and what kinds of equipment must be kept on the boat.

  • Less than 16 feet (class A) includes jon boats, small runabouts, and other personal watercraft
  • 16 feet to less than 26 feet (class 1) includes boats used for water skiing, fishing, and day trips
  • 26 feet to less than 40 feet (class 2) includes large boats with enclosed cabins
  • 40 feet to less than 65 feet (class 3) includes large, expensive boats such as classic yachts

According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), the majority of registered boats in Pennsylvania are less than 16 feet in length (class A).

Facing factsAccording to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the annual economic impact of boating in Pennsylvania is $3.8 billion. In addition, there are 14,861 jobs directly related to boating in the Keystone State.

Boat accident statistics

According to the United States Coast Guard, nationwide 4,145 boat accidents were reported in 2018. These accidents resulted in 633 deaths, 2,511 injuries, and roughly $46 million in property damage.

In Pennsylvania, the total number of reported boat accidents was 57 in 2019. Of the 57 boat accidents, 8 resulted in death (only 1 victim was wearing a life jacket), 37 resulted in injuries, and property damage to vessels totaled $117,580.

Factoring in the 2019 data, Pennsylvania’s 10-year boat fatality average is 12.5 victims per year.

On average, more than 12 people die in boat accidents every year in Pennsylvania. Tweet this

Common causes of boat accidents

In 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard released its Recreational Boating Statistics report, which looks at, among other things, the causes of boat accidents in the U.S.

The report found that the top 10 primary contributing factors of boat accidents in 2018 were:

Top 10 primary causes of boating accidents in the U.S. (2018)
Contributing factor Number of accidents Number of deaths Number of injuries
Operator inattention 654 50 437
Improper lookout 440 27 316
Operator inexperience 387 40 213
Machinery failure 321 9 86
Excessive speed 276 25 231
Alcohol use 254 101 204
Force of wake/wave 209 10 153
Weather 205 40 96
Navigational rules violation 184 19 144
Hazardous water 169 61 70

Source: US Coast Guard

The Coast Guard also keeps track of the number of accidents by primary accident type for each state in the country.

In Pennsylvania, the most common type of boat accident was capsizing. Tweet this
Number of accidents by boat accident type in Pennsylvania (2018)
Capsizing 11
Collision with a fixed object 10
Collision with floating object 5
Collision with recreational vessel 7
Collision with submerged object 2
Departed vessel 3
Ejected from vessel 7
Fall in vessel 2
Falls overboard 3
Fire explosion 4
Flooding/swamping 2
Grounding 4
Skier mishap 3

Source: US Coast Guard

Real Life Example: Peter Moyer was operating a small motorboat on the Lehigh River in Allentown, Pennsylvania. At the same time (and in the vicinity of the motorboat), Eric Hennigh was operating a jetski and Richard Moore was standing on a boulder.

As Eric passed Richard on his jetski, Richard swung a 5-foot stick at Eric. Eric turned to avoid the stick, lost control of the jetski, and veered directly into the path of the motorboat. The motorboat collided with the jetski and killed Eric.

A subsequent investigation found that Peter was intoxicated and traveling well above the speed limit at the time of the crash.

The estate of Eric Hennigh sued Peter and Richard for negligence. Both parties settled outside of court. Peter and Richard were also charged criminally.

Pennsylvania boating laws

There are a number of laws that apply exclusively to boats in Pennsylvania. Most of these laws can be found in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Code. Here are a few of the most important rules that you should know:

Registration and certification

In Pennsylvania, the following boats must be registered:

  • Any boat powered by gasoline, diesel, or an electric motor
  • Vessels documented by the U.S. Coast Guard for recreational purposes (such as yachts)
  • Boats that use gasoline, diesel, or electric motors for auxiliary power (such as sailboats)

In addition, you need to obtain a Boating Safety Education Certificate to:

  • Operate a personal watercraft, or
  • Operate boats powered by motors greater than 25 horsepower (if born after January 1, 1982).

Operating restrictions

You might feel like you’re in the wild west when operating a boat on the open water, but Pennsylvania has laws in place that prevent boat operators from behaving recklessly or negligently when behind the helm.

In Pennsylvania, it’s illegal to:

  • Operate a boat faster than slow (no-wake) speed within 100 feet of shoreline, docks, launch ramps, swimmers, downed skiers, persons wading in the water, and moored drift boats
  • Operate a motorboat less than 20 feet in length faster than slow (no-wake) speed while a person is standing on or in the boat
  • Operate a motorboat faster than slow (no-wake) speed with a person riding outside of the passenger-carrying area or while a person is riding on the bow decking, gunwales, transom, or motor covers
  • Operate a boat faster than slow (no-wake) speed when within 100 feet to the rear or 50 feet to the side of another boat
  • Operate a pontoon boat at any speed while a person is riding outside the passenger-carrying area
  • Operate a boat within 100 feet of anyone towed behind another boat
  • Operate a motorboat with anyone sitting, riding, or hanging on a swim platform or swim ladder attached to the boat
  • Cause a boat to become airborne or to leave the water completely while crossing another boat’s wake when within 100 feet of the boat creating the wake
  • Weave through congested traffic

Is there an age requirement to operate a boat in Pennsylvania?

Yes. A person 11 years of age or younger may not operate a personal watercraft (a boat less than 16 feet in length) or a boat propelled by a motor with greater than 25 horsepower.

Teens between the ages of 12 and 15 may not operate a personal watercraft if there are any passengers on board that are 15 years of age or younger.

Life jackets

Pennsylvania does not require that you wear a life jacket while you’re on a boat. However, all boats must have a USCG-approved wearable life jacket (in good and serviceable condition) on board and accessible to each person.

In addition to having wearable life jackets on board, boats 16 feet and over must have a throwable device (ring buoy, life ring or buoyant seat cushion) on board. Throwable devices must be immediately available to the operator or passengers of the boat. 

Boat accident reporting requirements

If you’re involved in an accident while operating a boat in Pennsylvania, you must submit a PFBC Accident Report if any of the following conditions exist:

  • A person dies (must notify authorities immediately and provide report within 48 hours)
  • A person is injured (must provide report within 48 hours)
  • Damage to the vessel and other property totals $2,000 or more (must provide report within 10 days)
  • A person disappears from the boat in a manner suggesting the person is injured or dead (must notify authorities immediately and provide report within 48 hours)

Who can be held liable for a boat accident?

As is the case with motor vehicle accidents, boating accident claims generally require an act of negligence in order to hold another person or a company liable for your injuries and damages.

This means that in order to receive compensation, you must prove that your injuries or damages were the direct result of someone else’s breach of their duty to exercise reasonable care.

Parties that may be held liable in a boating accidents may include:

  • Another boat operator
  • A boat owner
  • A manufacturer
  • An employer

Types of damages in a boat accident lawsuit

If negligence can be proven, you have the right to several types of compensation, including compensation for:

If someone is killed as a result of a boat accident, certain members of their family can file a wrongful death claim in order to recover damages, including funeral costs, lost companionship, and the deceased’s lost wages.

Have you or a loved one been involved in a boating accident? Use our free lawyer directory to locate an experienced Pennsylvania attorney who can help pull you out of the deep end.


Free personal injury guides for download to print or save. View all downloads.

Tell your story:
Tell your story - What would you want others to know? Tell us what happened in your accident, and how life has changed for you.

Find an attorney:
Search our directory for personal injury law firms.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.