Boating Accidents in Tennessee: Liability and Damages

Tennessee boat accidents

There’s a right of way on the water, just like there is on land

Boats (and other watercraft) can be dangerous if you don’t know how to use them properly. Most people are passengers on other people’s boats, or they travel with a boat company. Who is liable if you get hurt? Here’s what you should know in order to protect your rights on the water in Tennessee.
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You don’t think of Tennessee as being synonymous with crashing waves and a day at sea. That’s because Tennessee is one of the 27 states that’s completely land-locked. However, lakes abound and rivers run through many of Tennessee’s major cities. These waterways are popular for pontoon boating, fishing, and other recreational and industrial watercraft.

In fact, the Tennessee River is 652 miles long, flowing from Knoxville to where it joins the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky. The Tennessee River is a major waterway through the southeastern U.S. and is part of an enormous irrigation and hydropower system.

Facing factsAbout 54 million tons of goods are transported each year on the Tennessee River, which can include fertilizer, asphalt, zinc, grains that are essential to the poultry industry, and salt.

The Mississippi and Cumberland rivers are also important parts of southeast river systems. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers flow into the Ohio River, which eventually flows into the Mississippi.

Tennessee boating incident data

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) compiles data on boating incidents each year. These statistics are based on “reportable boating incident” reports, which include death, missing persons, an injury that requires treatment beyond first aid, or property damage of $2,000 or more. These reports are required of commercial and recreational whitewater boating incidents.

The charts below show the numbers of Tennessee boating injuries, fatalities, and incidents over the decade 2009-2019.

Tennessee Boating Injuries, Fatalities, and Incidents (2009-2019)

Tennessee boat accidents statistics
Source: 2019 Tennessee Boating Incident Statistical Report

Tennessee boating laws and regulations

Under Tennessee law, the owner of a vessel is responsible for any injury or damage done by their vessel, whether the owner is present or not, unless the vessel is used without the owner’s consent.

No wake areas

Any vessel that’s within 300 feet of a commercial boat dock must slow its wake speed, even if the area isn’t marked by buoys. “No wake” is a vessel that travels at or below idle speed, or at a speed where the wake is too small to cause injury or damage to a person, boat, or other property.

Boating under the influence

You may not operate any sail or powered vessel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

A person who is operating a boat is considered to have given implied consent to a chemical test for blood alcohol content (BAC). If you refuse a test, you could have your operating privileges suspended for 6 months.

When there’s a Tennessee boating accident that results in death or serious injury, a BAC test might be required for all involved boat operators.

If you’re convicted of operating a boat under the influence, you can face a fine of up to $2,500 for a first offense and second offense, and $5,000 for the third offense. You can also be sentenced to up to 1 year in jail, and operating privileges could be suspended for 1 to 10  years, along with additional federal penalties.


A diver must display a diver’s down flag where they are diving, and they must surface within 50 feet of the flag. A boat may not operate within 50 feet of a diver’s down flag, and there’s a no-wake idle speed restriction within 200 feet of the flag.

If a boat is part of a diving operation, it must display a diver’s down flag from its mast that includes an international code flag Alpha that’s visible from 360 degrees.

Common causes of boating injuries and fatalities

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Not every boating injury is caused by a collision or “accident” between the boat and another vessel or the boat and a stationary object. Every year, there are boaters who are injured or killed by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Most of us are careful about having a functioning carbon monoxide detector in our home, but it might not be something we think about on a boat. Carbon monoxide is produced from carbon-based fuels like gasoline, propane, charcoal, or oil. Carbon monoxide is present on boats from gasoline engines, generators, cooking ranges, and space or water heaters. The gas is colorless and odorless, which makes it almost impossible to detect without a properly functioning detector. When a person breathes it in, it displaces the oxygen in your bloodstream. This could result in headaches, nausea, weakness, dizziness, and other symptoms — even death.

The leading cause of carbon monoxide deaths is when there’s an exhaust leak that migrates through the boat and into enclosed areas like passenger cabins. It can also affect the rear deck platform if there’s a generator or engine running and teak surfing or dragging behind another boat.

12 carbon monoxide safety tips

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid being overcome by carbon monoxide. Here are some tips:

  1. Don’t swim near or under the deck or swim platform. Carbon monoxide could build up near exhaust vents, so stay away from those areas when swimming.
  2. Don’t be near an exhaust vent for at least 15 minutes after the motor or generator has shut off.
  3. If the exhaust is vented into an enclosed area beneath a swim platform, never enter the area — not even for a moment. Carbon monoxide at that concentration could be fatal after only 1 or 2 breaths.
  4. Don’t teak surf, drag, or water ski within 20 feet of a moving watercraft.
  5. Be sure to avoid blocking exhaust outlets because they can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate in the cabin and cockpit.
  6. Keep your boat at least 20 feet from the nearest boat that’s running a generator or engine because its gases can vent into your cockpit or cabin.
  7. Be extra cautious when idling or traveling at slow speeds because carbon monoxide gas could accumulate in the cabin, cockpit, bridge, and aft deck, or if there’s a tailwind.
  8. Backdrafting can also cause accumulation inside the cabin when the boat is at a high bow angle.
  9. Be sure that your boat’s passengers and operators are aware of the risks and know the early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  10. Get a regular maintenance inspection for the engine and exhaust system.
  11. Keep forward-facing hatches open for air circulation in living spaces.
  12. Install a carbon monoxide detector in each inside space on the boat and test it regularly.

Propeller accidents

Swim platforms, ladders, and slides can be in the rear of the boat near the propeller, so use caution when swimming or jumping. Before placing the engine in reverse, someone should check the stern area to make sure there’s no one in the water.

Electrical accidents

Many marinas offer cable, wifi, and electricity where 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 salt water.

Common causes of boat accidents

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Boating under the influence. It’s against the law to operate a boat if your blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08% or higher.
  4. Violating navigation rules. If you don’t follow the rules for correct boat navigation, you could collide with other boats or even run aground.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Weather conditions. Whether you’re boating on the river, 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Tennessee personal flotation device laws

A personal flotation device (PFD) can save a life. These are the PFD requirements in Tennessee:

  • A child 12 years old or younger is required to wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD on the open deck of any recreational boat that is not anchored, moored, or aground.
  • Each person should have a wearable device that’s appropriate for their size on any vessel, including a rowboat, sailboat, canoe, raft, or motorboat.
  • Each device must be accessible and easy to reach in an emergency.
  • Each device must have a Coast Guard approval stamp and number.
  • Each device must be in good condition and the correct size for the wearer.
  • Each boat (including a canoe or kayak) must have 1 wearable PFD for each person on board or being towed, and a boat 16 feet or longer must have a throwable PFD.

Liability for a Tennessee boat accident

Personal injury law is based on the principle that if someone breached a duty of care to you, and that breach caused you an injury that cost money, you’re entitled to recover damages (money) to cover your expenses.

These damages can include:

  • Medical treatment (doctor and hospital visits, surgeries, diagnostic testing, prescription medication, etc.)
  • Assistive devices like wheelchairs, walkers, prosthetics, etc.
  • Lost wages and loss of future earning capacity during your recovery (or if you become disabled)
  • Wrongful death if you’ve lost a family member in an accident
  • Property loss
  • Ongoing therapies or continued treatment
  • Pain and suffering or other emotional distress
  • Loss of consortium
  • Punitive damages

Tennessee comparative negligence law

Tennessee follows a comparative negligence law. Under comparative negligence, each person involved in an accident is assessed a percentage of liability. In other words, each individual has a percentage for which they’re at fault for the accident. This is important for determining how much the injured person receives in damages, or the compensation you receive to recover your costs if you were injured in an accident.

The amount of damages you can recover is reduced according to your percentage of fault for the accident. You can only recover damages if your contribution of fault is 50% or less.

Along those same lines, if there are 2 or more parties who are at fault, they’re considered to have joint and several liability for the same injury, which means they share the expense of damages.

This is how the court would evaluate a boat accident, whether it’s a collision between 2 (or more) boats or an injury to a passenger on a boat owned by someone else.

Who is liable for your boat accident?

Liability always depends on the circumstances of the accident and is proven by evidence.

However, the responsibility will usually rest with the person or company who owns or was operating the boat. If you’re a passenger on a boat that’s owned by a company or by a person you know, the owner is generally liable for injuries unless your actions caused you to be injured.

There are a few scenarios, though, where other third parties may be liable.

One is if the boat had mechanical or structural damages that caused the injury, in which case you might have a claim against the boat’s manufacturer (or the manufacturer of the defective part) as a product liability lawsuit.

Another is if you’re an employee who’s injured while working on a boat. In that instance, you’d most likely file a workers’ compensation claim against your employer’s insurance company.

As you can see, there may be several factors involved, and it’s difficult to know for sure who should be responsible. A Tennessee boat accident lawyer is the best person to help you make that determination. A complex legal argument isn’t something you probably want to tackle on your own. A Tennessee lawyer can work with you to ensure that you identify the correct defendants, accurately estimate the costs related to your injury, and can provide the proper evidence in order to prove your argument.

Need legal help? You can use the Enjuris attorney directory to get started finding a Tennessee boat accident attorney near you.


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