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Maritime and Boating Accidents in Texas

The Texas maritime industry is quite lovely from the outside

Admiralty law and how it applies to your vessel

Maritime and boating law govern vessels on the ocean. Which laws apply if you’re out at sea near Texas’ shores? If you’re injured on an oil rig, whose laws control the situation? If you’re taking a recreational boating trip and get hurt, what happens? This article takes a look at these scenarios.

In reality, Texas is third in the country for domestic maritime jobs, and Houston ranks second among all U.S. cities for its contribution to the maritime industry. That provides $8 billion annually to the Texas economy.

What exactly is the maritime industry, you ask? To put it simply, it’s comprised of the vessels that move cargo between ports.

But boating and maritime can include far more than what happens at work (for instance, things like recreational boating activities – tubing, fishing, motor boating or yachting). We’ll discuss that as well.

People do occasionally catch episodes of Beachfront Bargain Hunt that feature lovely shorelines in Galveston, so it’s not like Texas is bereft of sand. However, this state is famous for its professional maritime industry more than anything else.

How does the maritime industry work?

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 is mainly imported? Crude oil. Tons of it, literally. Exports include gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other petroleum products.

The Department of Transportation had these quick facts for 2011, the most recent year for which data is available:

  • Only the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers shipped more tonnage that year.
  • They made 34,000 towboat trips on the GIWW-T.
  • Around 90% of the freight was classified as petroleum or chemical-related.
  • One tank barge carries enough gasoline to meet the needs of approximately 2,500 people for one year.
  • Seventy-five million tons of freight were moved on the GIWW-T.

So, what does this have to do with accidents? Well, if there are boats, there are people, and if there are people, there are accidents. And if you’re out at sea... whose laws prevail?

This is when maritime law gets involved.

What is maritime and boating law?

Maritime law (AKA boating law, AKA admiralty law) governs the entities that operate vessels on the oceans. This could be anything relating to cargo to insurance claims to civil matters aboard a cruise ship – or even piracy. It also regulates the maritime industry, which is where oil rigs happen to be.

Nobody really thinks “oil rig” and pairs it with “sailor,” but that oil rig is located smack-dab in the middle of the ocean. Is that rig 12 miles from shore? That would put it in federal admiralty jurisdiction. Workers on oil rigs have to travel back and forth to get to work, so there is a good chance that something could happen on the water as well as while they’re on the rig.

Meanwhile, 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

Legislation such as the Jones Act was enacted to protect workers at sea or on “navigable waterways” – an important distinction if you’re a maritime worker. Think of all the ports and channels that a seaman would have to travel. There has even been argument over whether the tiny dingy – and the travel in that dingy to and from the larger boat – can be considered “at sea” and “on a navigable waterway.” 

But to be clear – if you’re 12 nautical miles from shore or more, it’s federal admiralty law that applies. Inward from there, Texas state maritime law applies, or just general personal injury law.

What about recreational types of boating?

Like every other state, Texas has its own laws that govern things like boating, fishing, tubing, yachting and other recreational activities. It also has its own maritime laws that would apply if something happened close enough to shore so that state law kicked in rather than federal admiralty law.

Vessels must be registered with the local tax collector’s office before use. There are also many other internal state laws, including:

  • The reporting of accidents that require more than immediate first aid or that result in more than $2,000 in property damage;
  • Automotive-style mufflers for certain types of speedboats;
  • Vessel speed restrictions;
  • Those under the age of 13 must wear flotation devices while aboard;
  • Laws regarding boating under the influence (discussed in more detail below);
  • And many more.

The one thing that remains constant is that the laws are always changing – so make sure to check the current regulations before setting sail.

Who can be held responsible if I am injured while boating?

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

These situations depend on what happened during the accident. These can include multiple defendants, such as the owner or driver of the boat (if you were a passenger); the driver or owner of the boat that hit yours; the manufacturer of the boat; the manufacturers of any defective flotation devices; the owner of the dock; and anyone else who negligently contributed to your injuries.

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.

If you end up injured while boating, don’t lose hope – the contract will need to be examined by a qualified attorney.

Drunk boating in Texas

It is illegal in Texas to operate a boat while intoxicated. Naturally, this doesn’t deter anyone. 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, if your blood alcohol level is 0.08 or more, you will be responsible for causing an accident.

If you’ve been injured and you think maritime law applies to you or you’re a boating enthusiast who needs to speak with an attorney, try the Enjuris Texas law firm directory.


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