Boating Accidents & Injury Compensation

Filing a claim based on a boating accident

How a personal injury lawsuit can help you stay afloat financially after a boating accident

Boating accidents are more complex than most other types of transportation accidents because they often implicate state and federal laws. Find out what laws apply to your boating accident and how you can increase your chances of recovering damages.

There are roughly 12 million recreational water vessels registered in the United States. This number doesn’t include non-recreational vessels used for occupations like longshoring, drilling, and commercial fishing.

Though some people think bodies of water are run like the Wild West, the truth is that oceans, rivers, and lakes in and around the United States are actually heavily regulated. This means that a boating accident could implicate any number of federal and state laws.

Common types and causes of boating accidents

A boating accident occurs when a vessel is involved in an incident that causes harm to another person. This harm might take the form of physical injury or property damage.

Facing factsIn 2018, 4,145 boating accidents resulted in 633 deaths, 2,511 injuries, and $46 million of property damage.

According to a report from the US Coast Guard, the 5 most common types of boating accidents are:

  • Collisions with other vessels
  • Collisions with fixed objects
  • Flooding
  • Grounding
  • Falls overboard

Other common accident types include:

  • Mishaps involving a skier or person on a towable object
  • Fires
  • Explosions
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning

The factors that commonly contribute to boating accidents can be grouped into 5 categories: boating operations, loading of passengers or gear, boat or boat equipment failures, environment, and miscellaneous.

Common causes of boating accidents (2018)
Primary contributing factors Boating operations Loading passengers or gear Failure of boat or boat equipment Environment Miscellaneous
Types of activities (examples) Alcohol use

Drug use

Excessive speed

Failure to vent

Improper lookout

Inadequate onboard navigation lights

Navigation rules violation

Operator inattention

Operator inexperience

Restricted vision

Sharp turn
Improper anchoring

Improper loading


People on gunwale, bow, or transom
Equipment failure

Hull failure

Machinery failure
Congested waters


Force of wave

Hazardous waters

Missing or inadequate navigation aid

Carbon monoxide exposure

Ignition of fuel or vapor

Sudden medical condition
Number of accidents 2,362 150 405 632 596
Number of deaths 280 56 21 118 158
Number of injuries 1,657 102 102 340 340
Source: United States Coast Guard

Federal and state boating laws

Boating accidents tend to be more complicated than car accidents, truck accidents, and other types of transportation accidents. This is due to the fact that, depending on the nature and location of the boating accident, a number of federal and state laws may be implicated.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the federal and state laws that might apply to your boating accident.

Federal boating laws

Federal laws (called “maritime” or “admiralty” laws) generally govern boating accidents that occur:

  • On navigable waters (bodies of water that provide a channel for the transportation of goods and people), and
  • Involve traditional maritime activities (commercial activities rather than recreational activities).
Federal laws generally govern boating accidents that occur on navigable waters and involve commercial activities. Tweet this

Some examples of federal laws that may govern commercial boating accidents include:

State boating laws

In addition to federal boating laws, state laws govern most non-navigable-water accidents (for example, a boat accident that occurs on a lake). Specific laws vary from state to state, but most state laws address issues like:

  • Ownership and registration of vessels
  • License and education requirements
  • Mandatory accident reporting
  • Duties of boat operators
  • Boating while under the influence

Determining liability in a boating accident

As is the case with car accidents, you generally have to prove that some other party was negligent in a boating accident in order to recover damages for your injuries. This means you’ll have to prove that your injuries were caused by another party’s breach of their duty of reasonable care.

Common examples of individuals and parties that may be held liable for boating accidents include:

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

For example, if you collide with another boat on a lake, you’ll have to prove these three things:

  1. The boat operator owed you a duty of care,
  2. The boat operator breached that duty of care, and
  3. The breach was the proximate cause of your injuries.

Just like motor vehicle drivers, boat operators are required to exercise reasonable care to avoid hurting others out on the water. A boat operator might breach this duty by operating their boat under the influence or by driving at an excessive speed.

What if I signed a waiver that disclaimed liability?

If you rented a vessel from a marina, you most likely signed a waiver that disclaimed liability for the boat owner. 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.

You can locate an attorney in your area here.

Compensable damages in a boating accident

If negligence can be proven, most states will allow you to recover:

  • Medical expenses
  • Loss of wages and work time
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional trauma
  • Property damage

If a wrongful death occurs because of the boating accident, certain family members of the deceased will, in most cases, be able to recover funeral costs, lost companionship, and the deceased's lost wages.

Work-related boating accidents

If you were injured in a boating accident while on the job, one of the federal workers’ compensation statutes probably applies. Determining which statute applies and what steps need to be taken to ensure your claim is accepted can be difficult.

Enjuris tip: If you were injured in a boating accident while on the job, you should strongly consider contacting a workers’ compensation attorney with a maritime law background.

Steps to take after a boating accident

Though we all like to think that accidents only happen to other people, the fact is there were 4,145 boating accidents in 2018 — and 2018 was actually a down year. Accidents can happen to anyone (yes, even you) and knowing what to do in the event of an incident can mean the difference between an embarrassing mishap and a life-changing accident.

Here are some steps to take following a boating accident:

  • Step 1: Assess the damage. The most important step to take immediately following a boating accident is to take stock of any injuries, including your own. This means checking all passengers and making sure no one has fallen overboard. If the boat appears to have been damaged, make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket and drop anchor to avoid drifting into more trouble.
  • Step 2: Call for help. If you have cell service, call 911. Otherwise, use a VHF radio to make a distress call.
  • Step 3: Collect information. Keeping in mind that you might need to file an insurance claim or lawsuit later on, so safely collect as much information about the accident as you can. This includes the names and contact information of any witnesses, the names and contact information of any other parties involved (such as the operator of the other boat in the case of a boat-on-boat collision), and photographs of any injuries or damage.
  • Step 4: File the proper paperwork. Submit a Boating Accident Report (BAR) with the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction where the accident occurred.
  • Step 5: Locate and meet with an attorney. An experienced boating attorney can help you investigate the accident, file an insurance claim or lawsuit, and collect the damages you’re owed.

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