Guide to Boat Accidents in Texas

Boat laws and how they apply to accidents on the water

Texas may not seem like a hub of boating activity, but it is. What happens when you’re injured in a boat accident in Texas?

The cars and trucks moving along the roads in Texas are heavily regulated, and certain laws come into play when those vehicles are involved in an accident.

But what about the boats traveling on the bodies of water in and around Texas? Are boats regulated? What happens when a boat is involved in an accident? Is there a difference between recreational boats and boats used for work?

Before you think boat accidents are only a problem along the coasts of Florida and California, keep in mind that Texas ranks 3rd in the nation for maritime jobs. What’s more, Texas has more inland water than any other state and around 580,000 registered boats.

So what happens when a dreamy day on the water turns into a nightmare?

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What laws apply to a Texas boating accident?

It’s not always easy to determine which laws govern a boating accident.

Federal boating laws

In general, federal laws (called “maritime” or “admiralty” laws) 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 (generally speaking, commercial activities rather than recreational activities).

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

Texas boating laws

On the other hand, state law governs most non-navigable-water accidents. Most of these state laws can be found in the Texas Water Safety Act and include:

Is it illegal to operate a boat while intoxicated in Texas?

It is illegal in Texas to operate a boat while intoxicated. Naturally, this doesn’t deter everyone. Water might hurt less than a road when you hit it, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get seriously injured during a high-speed crash.

Like normal DUI laws in Texas, it is illegal to operate a boat if your blood alcohol level is 0.08 or more.

Does this sound confusing?

It is. Lawyers who specialize in boating accidents tend to only handle boating accidents. When looking for a Texas attorney, be sure they have experience handling your specific type of case.

Examples of boat accidents in Texas

Most boat accidents in Texas are either going to be maritime industry accidents, or recreational accidents.

Let’s take a look at both of these types of accidents.

Maritime industry accidents

The Texas Maritime Transportation System (MTS) is a complex system of ports, waterways, and landside connectors. These are what allow goods and people to move over water. Commercial ports are connected by the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Texas (GIWW-T), a component of the state’s petrochemical and manufacturing supply chain.

What’s imported in Texas? Crude oil, mainly. Tons of it.

Exports include gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, and other petroleum products.

Facing factsTake a look at these statistics from a Texas Department of Transportation report:

  • Texas ports handle roughly 175 million tons of export cargo and 175 million tons of import cargo.
  • Roughly 36,000 towboat trips occur on the GIWW-T every year.
  • Roughly 86 million tons of freight is moved on the GIWW-T every year.
  • Around 90% of the freight that’s moved is classified as petroleum or chemical-related.
  • One tank barge carries enough gasoline to meet the needs of approximately 2,500 people for one year.

Nobody thinks “oil rig” and pairs it with “sailor,” but that oil rig is located smack-dab in the middle of the ocean. If the rig is at least 12 miles from shore, then it falls under federal admiralty jurisdiction.

Workers on oil rigs have to travel back and forth to get to work, so there’s a possibility that something could happen on the water as well as while they’re on the rig.

Maritime workers have a fatality rate 11 times higher than that of other U.S. workers. What type of law applies to the following? It depends on where the accident is physically located. The maritime industry includes:

  • Transit collisions
  • Crane accidents
  • Forklift malfunctions
  • Exposure to harmful substances
  • Falls
  • Transportation accidents
  • Electrocutions
  • Fires
  • Explosions
  • Dangerous contact with equipment
  • Drowning

Recreational boating accidents

Like motorists, boat drivers have responsibilities when it comes to operating their boats safely and according to the rules of the water. However, accidents are always a possibility and the damages from a boating accident can be severe.

Victims of boating accidents often have a legal right to compensation for their losses, including medical costs for injuries and property damage. These rights hold true regardless of whether the accident occurs aboard a private boat, luxury commercial vessel, or even a jetski.

Are recreational boat accidents common in Texas?

According to an X report, there were 813 recreational boat accidents from 2013—2017 (that’s an average of about 163 per year). What’s more, 200 of those accidents were fatal.

The most common causes of recreational boating accidents in Texas include:

  • Alcohol consumption. Approximately 50% of all recreational boating accidents involve alcohol or drug use.
  • Mechanical failure. Sometimes boat parts fail, and those failures can cause an accident.
  • High speeds. Traveling at high speeds on a boat increases the chance of accident and decreases reaction time. This means that collisions are a real possibility on the water.
  • Inexperience. Many drivers have little to no training or education on how to properly operate a boat or how to respond in emergencies on the water. This increases the risk of serious accident considerably.
  • Dangerous weather conditions. Water is unpredictable, especially if inclement weather is a factor. Operating a boat during a storm or in high winds is ill-advised and can easily cause a serious accident.

Who can be held responsible if I’m injured while boating?

This is a frustrating answer, but “it depends.”

Just as with auto accidents, boating accident claims generally require an act of negligence in order to hold an at-fault party liable for your injuries and damages.

This means that in order to receive compensation, a boat accident victim must prove that his or her injuries were the direct result of another party's breach of their duty of reasonable care.

Parties that may be held liable for boating accidents can include:

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

If negligence can be proven, victims have a right to several types of compensation for their injuries and losses. These damages include:

  • Emotional trauma
  • Property damage

If a wrongful death occurs because of the boating accident, other damages may be compensated for including funeral costs, lost companionship, and the deceased's lost wages.

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.

Boating accident cases in Texas are incredibly complex. If you or a loved one has been injured in a boating accident, whether on a small inland body of water or the ocean, it’s important to contact an experienced Texas attorney as soon as possible.

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