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By: F. Gregory Barnhart

Boat Accidents & Other Watercraft Injuries

Let a Florida Boat Accident Attorney Help You Pursue Compensation

Injured in a boating or watercraft accident? You need an experienced Florida boat accident attorney to help you recover damages. The lawyers at Searcy Denney are on your side and work diligently to protect victims. Contact us today to discuss your claim options and legal rights.

Our Florida boat accident lawyers have more than 40 years of experience holding negligent parties responsible for their actions in boating and watercraft accidents.

damaged watercraft after a boat accident

Why Florida Is a Breeding Ground for Boating Injuries

Recreational boating is a driving force in the Florida state economy. Every year there are more and more registered vessels in Florida. In 2019 there were 961,266 registered vessels in addition to the estimated one million non-registered vessels that actively use Florida’s waterways. As recreational and commercial boating continues to grow in Florida, so does the strain on the already crowded waterways.

Along with the thrill of sun, water, and wind at your back, however, lurk the dangers posed by negligent or reckless boat operators. A poorly maintained or malfunctioning boat or an inexperienced or inattentive operator can cause catastrophic injuries and elevate the risk of drowning for boaters and swimmers.

Boat

Spinal cord and back injuries, brain damage and other catastrophic consequences of boating accidents can change victims’ lives forever and impose a substantial emotional and financial burden on families. Boat accident victims face significant medical expenses and rehabilitation costs and many are never able to work again.

 

 

Florida Boating Accident Statistics

Florida leads the country in registered vessels. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 961,266 registered boating vessels in 2019. Naturally, it comes as no surprise that Florida tends to experience a higher rate of boating injuries and/or fatalities in comparison to other states.

According to 2019 boat accident statistics:

  • There were 723 boating accidents in 2019 – an almost 20% increase over the previous year.
  • In 2019, 65 boat operators and passengers were killed and another 453 were injured.
  • Drowning was the number one cause of death (66%) for boat and watercraft accident victims in Florida.
  • 88% of boaters killed were not wearing life jackets, and 57% did not know how to swim.

Common Causes of Boat Accidents

Unlike on public streets and highways, bodies of water do not have clearly marked traffic lanes or signals and signs that can help boaters avoid collisions and potential safety hazards. So it is the responsibility of boat owners, operators and passengers to be well-informed and to exercise good judgment to keep themselves safe on the water.

Some of the most common causes of boating accidents include:

  • Operator inexperience
  • Operator inattention
  • Reckless operation
  • Speeding
  • Weather and water conditions
  • Unsafe behavior of passengers
  • Equipment failure
  • Congested waterways
  • Drug or alcohol use

In 2019 there were 324 reportable accidents that resulted in 453 injured individuals. A reportable accident is any accident that results in: 

  • Personal injury requiring medical treatment beyond immediate first aid 
  • Death or disappearance of any person from onboard 
  • Damage to any vessel of at least $2,000, or total loss of a vessel

Collision with another vessel was the leading type of reportable accident. A total of 205 (28%) accidents in 2019 involved two or more boats colliding. 

Can a Florida Boat Accident Attorney Also Help with Personal Watercraft Accidents?

There is a variety of watercraft in use in Florida, and the legal ramifications of an accident can vary depending on the type of watercraft, weather conditions, training, ownership of the watercraft, and a number of other factors.

A common misconception is that because personal watercraft (PWC) are smaller they are easier to operate and therefore safer. The 2019 statistics from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) show that inexperienced PWC operators are a risk to themselves and others on Florida waters: 

  • 47% of PWC accidents involved a collision with another vessel 
  • Rented boats represented 43% of PWC involved in accidents
  • Six fatalities resulted from the 186 PWC accidents
  • 169 people were injured in PWC accidents
  • Paddlecraft (canoes, kayaks, rowboats, paddleboards) were involved in 21 accidents resulting in 14 fatalities and 13 injuries 

Jet Ski Accidents

As far as private watercraft go, jet skis are among the most dangerous, and for a number of reasons:

  • Jet skis have significant power in a light, small profile, which means that it’s quite easy for newcomers to “overdo” the throttle and get into an accident’;
  • Jet skis are like motorcycles in the sense that they lack material to absorb the impact force of a collision — if you are involved in an accident, it’s highly likely that you will be subject to a direct impact to your body, exposing you to severe injuries; and
  • Jet ski rentals are often offered by recreational companies that lack the resources necessary to give you adequate safety training so that you can properly avoid an accident.

If you’ve been injured in a jet ski accident — even if it’s partially “your” mistake that led to the accident — you may still be entitled to hold the company liable for failing to provide you with the necessary training and equipment to minimize the risk of injury.

Wave Runner Accidents

Yamaha Waverunners are a brand of jet ski that is quite popular.  Unlike other jet skis, however, the Waverunner has a spout of water that shoots out at the back.  This can give rise to a unique accident risk in situations where the jet ski operator is navigating ahead of another vessel — the spout of water may limit the visibility of the watercraft behind the Waverunner, making it more likely for an accident to occur.

Motorboat Accident Statistics

The number of boats registered in Florida steadily increases year over year. With public marinas, boat shares and deep water-access canals running through most cities residents and visitors have access to a day on the water. In 2019, nearly 70% of all vessels involved in fatal accidents were 21 feet in length or less. Towed watersport activities were involved in nine accidents, resulting in one fatality and 12 injuries, and nearly 70% of boats involved in accidents were powered by a propeller.

Open Motorboat Accidents

Open motorboats are designed to enjoy a day out on the water. They do not have a fully separate cabin though they are often fitted with temporary partial shelters (like canopies). Usually used for day trips or as rentals, open motorboats are prone to overloading and inexperienced operators. In fact, in 2019, 54% of accidents involved an open motorboat.

Yacht Accidents

Yacht accidents are unfortunately common, even in situations where the yacht owner has hired a professional crew to man the vessel.  In many yacht accident cases, the owner may not invest the resources necessary to maintain the vessel in a reasonably safe condition — for example, the yacht may not have been inspected in some time, or there may be some defective condition that has not yet been repaired.

If you’ve been injured in a yacht accident, we encourage you to get in touch with an experienced boating accident attorney in Florida today.  Your attorney will evaluate your claims and determine how to proceed with litigation.

Florida Boat Accident Laws that Can Impact Your Claim

Florida boating laws are extremely strict. Regulations are in place to enforce safety in open waters and help prevent boat operator behaviors that can result in fatalities and personal injuries. Operators who ignore the posted speed and waste limits, do not pay attention to other traffic on the water, or disobey other navigation rules can be punished by fine or even imprisonment.

Anyone who has been involved in an accident due to a vessel or watercraft operator’s negligent actions may be entitled to boat injury compensation. It is imperative to speak with experienced boat accident attorneys as quickly as possible following the incident to discuss your options for filing a personal injury claim.

According to the definition provided by the FWC, an operator is at fault when an accident or injury is caused by: 

  • Speeding 
  • Overloading, improper loading and not properly seating occupants of the boat
  • Lock of a proper look-out
  • Carelessness, failure to heed weather warnings
  • Operating recklessly in a congested area, not observing the rules of the road
  • Unsafe fueling practices
  • Lack of experience
  • Ignorance of aids to navigation
  • Lack of caution in an unfamiliar area of operation
  • Improper installation or maintenance of hull, machinery or equipment
  • Panic, poor judgment or recklessness
  • Proceeding in an unseaworthy craft
  • Operating a motorboat near persons in the water
  • Overpowering the boat, starting the engine with clutch engaged or throttle advanced or irresponsible boat handling (such as quick, sharp turns)

Inexperience is one of the largest threats you can encounter on the water, 80% of the operators involved in fatal accidents had no formal boating education. Boating Safety Education is now required for all operators born after January 1, 1988, with nearly 60,000 issues to Floridians in recent years.

Negligence Per Se

It can be a challenge to prove that the defendant boat operator was negligent in their operation of their boat.  In order to establish negligence, you’d have to show that the defendant violated the standard of care (and that their violation of the applicable standard of care caused you to suffer injuries) — in other words, you’d have to show that a reasonable person with similar qualifications and under same or similar circumstances would have operated the boat differently, thus avoiding the accident at-issue.

Negligent Entrustment Cases Can be Won with the Help of a Boat Accident Attorney in Florida

In Florida, negligent entrustment principles apply not only to motor vehicles, such as cars and trucks, but also to boats and other small watercraft.  Negligent entrustment occurs when the owner of the boat permits an individual to operate the watercraft despite having knowledge that the permitted individual is incompetent to safely operate the vessel.  If injuries result from the permitted individual’s use of the boat then the injured plaintiff may have an independent right of action against the vessel owner for significant damages pursuant to a “negligent entrustment” claim.

Negligent entrustment has several elements.  To prove that the defendant-owner has committed negligent entrustment, you must show:

  1. That the boat operator (e.g. the permitted individual) was incompetent to use the vessel at-issue;
  2. That the owner permitted the operator to use the vessel;
  3. That the owner knew or reasonably should have known that the operator was incompetent to use the vessel; and
  4. That the operator’s incompetence proximately caused your injuries.

Let’s use a quick example for clarity.

Suppose that you are a passenger on a small sailboat, berthed at your local marina.  Suddenly, a small motorboat comes in at a high speed and slams into the side of your sailboat, causing you to sustain significant injuries.

You consult a Florida boat accident lawyer and begin to investigate the accident  — the investigation reveals not only that the defendant operator was intoxicated at the time of the accident, but also that the motorboat was owned by a different individual.  If the owner was aware of the fact that the operator was intoxicated (or would likely be intoxicated) when permitting them to use the motorboat, then you could ostensibly sue and recover damages from the owner pursuant to negligent entrustment.

Vicarious Liability for Boating Accidents

Vicarious liability — in Florida and in other jurisdictions — gives you the right to attach the negligence-based liability of an employee to their employer.  In the boating context, this means that a crew member’s negligence could give you a right of action for damages against their employer, even if the employer was not independently responsible for your losses.

For example, imagine a situation in which you are riding as a passenger on a chartered boat for the day.  One of the crew members fails to operate the sails correctly, however, causing the boat to veer off-course and collide with another boat.  You are subsequently injured due to the collision.

Now, Florida law gives you a right of action against the crew member’s employer if you can show that the injury was caused within the course and scope of their employment, which — in these circumstances — it clearly was. A Florida boat accident lawyer can evaluate your claim and help you recover the compensation you deserve. 

Our Attorneys Handle Boating Under the Influence (BUI) Claims

Florida boating laws also prohibit intoxicated boat operation. Boating Under the Influence (BUI) is a serious offense and can lead to severe or even fatal accidents and injuries. In 2019, the FWC reported that alcohol or drug-use is reported to have played a role in 32% boating fatalities. Anyone operating a boat with a blood alcohol level of .08% or higher risks fines from $500 to $2,000 and imprisonment. Those convicted of multiple BUI offenses in Florida can face up to five years in prison.

Boating Under the Influence is Illegal in Florida

It is against Florida law to operate a vessel while impaired by alcohol or any other drugs. Fish and wildlife officers are trained to conduct sobriety tests as well as chemical tests to determine if an operator is intoxicated. 

Operating a boat in Florida with a blood-alcohol level of .08% or higher is punishable by fines from $500 to $2,000 and imprisonment. Repeat offenders can face up to five years in prison.

Not only is drinking while boating illegal, but it is also dangerous. The Recreational Boating Statistics, an annual report by the U.S. Coast Guard, shows that an intoxicated boat operator or a passenger is at a greater risk. If you are out on the water with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit, you are at a significantly increased risk of being involved in a boating accident. 

How Does BUI Lead to Boating Accidents? 

The impact of alcohol on your judgment, vision and coordination can be immensely dangerous while on the water. As blood alcohol concentration goes up, your ability to process information, assess dangerous situations, and exercise sound judgment goes down.

With so much going on in the boating environment sun, wind, noise, vibration, the USCG determined that driving a boat while intoxicated is more dangerous than driving a car. It is incredibly important to understand your surroundings while operating a boat. Missing a dive flag could end in tragedy.  Alcohol impacts your peripheral vision, depth perception, night vision, and the ability to distinguish colors (particularly red and green) are reduced.

Boating accidents where alcohol is involved are significantly more likely to involve capsizing or someone falling overboard. U.S. Coast Guard data shows that alcohol is a factor in nearly one in five recreational boating fatalities. 

Our Boat Accident Attorneys Answer Your Top Questions 

Are Boaters Required to Have Liability Insurance in Florida?

No, despite the dangers reckless and inexperienced boaters present on the water, boaters are not required to have liability insurance in Florida. However, purchasing liability insurance is still a good idea, and most responsible boat owners will have coverage. Boat owners’ insurance policies typically cover their children and others who borrow their vessels as well. So, if you were involved in a collision with an insured vessel, the vessel owner’s policy should provide coverage.

Does Boater’s Insurance Cover Injuries from Collisions with Other Vessels?

Yes, the “liability” aspect of boater’s insurance provides coverage for injuries from collisions with other vessels. If the owner of an insured vessel causes an accident, or if a passenger or guest captain causes an accident, the owner’s insurance company should be liable to pay for any injuries resulting from the collision. But, filing a successful claim requires proof of liability, so it is important to hire a boat accident attorney in Florida to investigate and collect evidence as soon as possible.

What Are Your Options if a Boater Who Causes an Accident is Uninsured?

If you were injured in an accident caused by an uninsured boater, your options will depend on the circumstances involved. For example, if the uninsured boater was working at the time of the accident (i.e., running a charter or relocating a boat from one marina to another), you could have a claim against his or her employer. Or, if a rental company or boat club negligently entrusted a vessel to an unqualified captain, you could have a claim against the company. There are a variety of other options as well, and an experienced boat accident attorney in Florida will be able to dissect the facts of your case to determine what claim (or claims) you have available.

Can You File a Claim Against a Boater for Creating a Dangerous Wake?

Yes, it is possible to file a claim against a boater for creating a dangerous wake in appropriate cases. Boaters have a legal obligation to exercise due care to avoid causing other vessels to capsize and causing other types of accidents on the water. If a boater creates a dangerous wake that causes another vessel to capsize, collide with a dock or other vessel, or run aground, then the boater can – and should – be held liable for negligence.

Can I File a Claim Against a Boat Rental Company or Boat Club?

It is possible to file claims against rental companies and boat clubs in many cases. As noted above, one example is when a rental company or boat club entrusts a vessel to an unqualified captain. In these cases, the company’s legal responsibility is not based on vicarious liability for the unqualified captain’s negligence, but on the company’s own negligence in allowing someone to operate a vessel who had no business being on the water.

How Do I File a Claim Against a Charter Company?

Filing a claim against a charter company requires proof that the charter company is liable for your injuries. This could be the case if either: (i) you were injured while on a charter; or (ii) you were injured in a collision with a charter boat or by a charter boat’s dangerous wake. Unfortunately, many charter companies in Florida hire inexperienced and unqualified captains and crewmembers. If these individuals do not know what they need to do in order to keep themselves and others safe, then their employer can be held liable under Florida law.

How Much Can a Florida Boat Accident Lawyer Help Me Recover?

The amount a boat accident attorney in Florida can help you recover depends on several factors. Some of the key factors for assessing the value of a boat accident claim include:

  • Who was at fault in the accident (i.e., could the insurance companies claim that you were partially at fault)?
  • How severe is the damage to your boat (if applicable)?
  • How severe are your injuries from the accident?
  • Will you need long-term medical care?
  • How long will your injuries prevent you from working?
  • Are you experiencing (or will you experience) pain, suffering, emotional distress or other “non-financial” losses?

When you choose Searcy Denney for your boat accident case, our lawyers will thoroughly assess your legal rights, and we will seek maximum compensation on your behalf. We will work to negotiate a favorable settlement that covers your repair or replacement costs, medical bills, loss of income, and other losses; and, if a fair settlement isn’t on the table, we won’t hesitate to take your case to court. 

Our Florida Boat Accident Attorney’s Verdicts & Settlements

Watercraft and boating accidents in Florida are, unfortunately, a common occurrence. For more than 40 years the Florida boat accident attorneys at Searcy Denney have represented families who have been in accidents on Florida waterways. 

In just one example, personal injury attorney Greg Barnhart represented a teenager who was partially paralyzed when a group of high school friends celebrating homecoming took a 34-foot fishing boat out to party off of Peanut Island in Palm Beach County. After two failed mediations, personal injury attorney Barnhart took this case to trial and a jury awarded a $6.4 million verdict against the boat’s operators and owners for their negligence. Other results include:

Read more Florida boating accident verdicts and settlements

Life jacket and life ring buoy help after a boat accidentContact a Florida Boat Accident Law Firm Who Will Fight for You

We are fortunate to live and practice along the Atlantic coast where, like many Floridians, our attorneys and staff enjoy boating and water sports. So we feel we have a vested interest in helping victims and their families who have been involved in serious boating accidents. Our firm is skilled in investigating and litigating personal injury cases and will help you recover just compensation.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a boating accident, we are available to talk with you, give you a realistic assessment of your claim, and help you pursue justice. Please fill out our Contact Form or call us at 1-800-780-8607 to schedule an appointment for a free, confidential consultation with an experienced Florida boat accident lawyer in Florida.  Our offices are located in Tampa, West Palm, and Tallahassee.  

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"Cannot say enough about Mr. Ward and his team. Joanna and Mr. Ward helped me through a very difficult time while being extremely professional and prompt. I would highly recommend."
Posted By: Samantha Saundry