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What laws govern your boat (or another vessel) accident and who is liable for injuries on the water?
Washington State is one of the most popular boating destinations in the country. From Lake Chelan to the Salish Sea, there’s no shortage of water on which to take your vessel.
Fortunately, boating accidents are relatively rare in the Evergreen State. Nevertheless, they do still occur on occasion.
|Washington boat accidents (2019)|
|Fatal accidents||Total accidents||Total damage|
|Source: United States Coast Guard 2019 Recreational Boating Statistics Report|
When accidents on the water happen, victims may be able to recover damages if they can prove that someone else’s negligence was the cause of their injury or damages.
Washington boating laws and regulations
Boat operators in Washington should be familiar with both state and federal boating regulations. The state regulations can be found in Chapter 79A.60 of the Revised Code of Washington. The federal regulations can be found in Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
Washington boating laws can be divided into 2 broad categories:
- Laws that impact boaters before they go out on the water.
- Laws that impact boaters while they’re out on the water.
Let’s take a closer look at both.
Laws that impact boaters before they go out on the water
To operate (or even moor) a vessel in Washington, you must have a valid Washington title, registration card, and registration decals, unless:
- Your vessel is a canoe, kayak, or a vessel not propelled by a motor or sail,
- Your vessel is less than 16 feet in length, has a motor of 10 horsepower or less, and is used on non-federal waters only, or
- Your vessel is properly registered by a resident of another state or country who uses Washington waters for 60 days or fewer.
In addition to a title, registration card, and registration decals, you must obtain a Boater Education Card if:
- You operate a vessel with a 15-horsepower (or greater) motor,
- You were born after Jan. 1, 1955, or
- You are 12 years of age or older.
To obtain a Boater Education Card, you must pass a state-approved boating safety course or equivalency exam (online or in-person) and then submit a Boater Education Card Application.
Do I need to purchase a life jacket?
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) estimates that life jackets could have saved the lives of more than 80% of boating fatality victims. To put it simply, you should wear a life jacket.
But is it legally required?
In Washington, all vessels (including canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards) must carry at least 1 USCG-approved life jacket for each person onboard.
- Children 12 years old and younger must wear a USCG-approved life jacket at all times when underway in a vessel less than 19 feet in length.
- Each person onboard a personal watercraft (PWC) and anyone being towed behind a boat must wear a USCG-approved life jacket designed specifically for that activity.
- A USCG-approved throwable flotation device must be on board vessels 16 feet or longer.
When picking out a life jacket, the Washington State Parks Department has some simple recommendations:
✔ Find one you’ll actually wear. Choosing the right life jacket requires research. Your body type and swimming skills, along with the type of boating activity and environment, need to be considered.
✔ Read the label and be sure you understand performance levels, warnings, intended use, and maintenance requirements.
✔ Learn how to properly fit a life jacket. It needs to help keep your head above the water. It should fit snugly and comfortably enough to be worn at all times.
✔ Regularly check for wear and tear and be sure to service inflatables (replace cartridges, etc.).
If you don’t have a life jacket, you may be able to borrow one from a life jacket loaner station at no charge. Life jacket loaner stations, which are operated by the State Parks Boating Program in partnership with the Washington Drowning Prevention Network, are located at marinas, near boat ramps, and at various state parks.
Washington laws that impact boaters while they’re out on the water
Revised Code of Washington 79A.60.030 states that:
“A person shall not operate a vessel in a negligent manner. To ‘operate in a negligent manner’ means operating a vessel in disregard of careful and prudent operation.”
Some examples of actions that are probably negligent include:
- Weaving a vessel through congested waterway traffic
- Loading your vessel beyond the recommended capacity
- Cutting between a boat and the individual or individuals being towed by the boat
- Crossing paths with another watercraft when visibility around the watercraft is so obstructed as to endanger human life, human physical safety, or property
- Steering a personal watercraft toward an object or individual in the water and turning sharply at close range in a way that endangers human life, human physical safety, or property
It’s illegal to operate a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or any combination of alcohol, controlled substances, or drugs.
A person is considered to be “under the influence” in Washington if the result of a breath or blood test shows any of the following:
- A blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or higher for adults (21 and over)
- A BAC of .02 or higher for minors (under 21)
- A THC concentration of 5 nanograms (ng) or more per milliliter of blood
Here are some more laws you should be aware of while operating a vessel in Washington:
- It’s illegal to anchor a vessel in the traveled portion of a river or channel that will interfere with any other vessels passing through.
- It’s illegal to operate any vessel in a way that will interfere with the safe navigation of other vessels.
- It’s illegal to moor or attach a vessel to a buoy (other than a mooring buoy), beacon, light, or any other navigational aid placed by authorities on public waters.
- It’s illegal to move, displace, tamper with, damage, or destroy any navigational aid.
- Spilling oil or a hazardous substance in state waters is illegal.
Common causes of boating injuries and fatalities
There’s a lot to keep in mind when operating a boat, from being aware of other boats and objects to accounting for the wind or current. Just like driving a car, failing to pay attention for even a moment can result in a catastrophic accident.
Each year, the USCG releases its Recreational Boating Statistics report, which looks at the top 10 boat accident contributing factors. Here are the latest findings:
|Top 10 boat accident contributing factors (2019)|
|Contributing factor||Number of accidents||Number of deaths||Number of injuries|
|Force of wake/wave||235||21||141|
|Navigation rules violation||170||48||87|
Reporting a boat accident in Washington
If you’re involved in a boat accident in Washington, you’re required to stop at the scene of the accident and assist anyone who is injured or in danger (so long as doing so wouldn’t endanger you).
What’s more, you must file a Washington Boat Accident Report with the local law enforcement agency if:
- Loss of life occurs,
- Injury occurs which requires medical treatment beyond first aid,
- A person disappears from a vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury, or
- Property damage is in excess of $2,000.
Liability for a Washington boat accident
To receive compensation for a boat accident, you need to prove that someone else was “at fault” for the accident. In most cases, this means proving that the person was negligent.
To establish negligence in Washington, you must prove 3 elements:
- The defendant owed you a duty to exercise reasonable care
- The defendant breached their duty to exercise reasonable care, and
- The defendant’s breach was the cause of your accident.
Some examples of the parties who may be liable in a Washington boat accident include:
- The operator of a boat. A boat operator may be liable if, for example, they were operating the boat while intoxicated or were driving too fast in the conditions.
- Passengers. A passenger may be liable if they acted in a way that caused the accident, such as starting a fight that disabled or incapacitated the boat operator.
- Manufacturers. A manufacturer may be liable if the boat accident was the result of a defective product.
- Restaurant or bar. A restaurant or bar may be liable if they serve alcohol to an obviously intoxicated individual and that individual later crashes a boat.
Washington comparative negligence law
What happens if you’re partially responsible for your accident but still want to recover damages?
Washington follows the pure comparative fault rule, which means that your damages will be reduced by your percentage of fault. For example, if you successfully sue the defendant for $100,000 and the court finds that you were 10% at fault for your accident, you will only be able to recover $90,000.
How insurance coverage may affect your boat accident case
Just because you prove that someone else’s negligence caused your accident, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to actually collect the judgment. If the defendant doesn’t have boater’s insurance or assets, they might not be able to satisfy the judgment. Unfortunately, motor vehicle insurance doesn’t cover boat accidents and only some homeowner’s insurance policies cover boat accidents.
Ready to talk to an attorney about filing a boat accident lawsuit? You can find an experienced Washington personal injury attorney using our free online directory.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.