Boating is big here in Florida. With the great weather we enjoy year-round, the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, along with all the inland water bodies up and down the state, it’s no surprise that taking the boat out is a popular recreational activity. The downside is that boating accidents are also common. Even worse, boating accidents often result in severe injuries or fatalities. With those accidents come lawsuits and the question of who is liable in a boating accident.
The liability in a boating accident comes down to how a Florida court evaluates the four key principles of negligence–duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Each case is different and is subject to Florida’s rules regarding comparative negligence.
Boating Accidents & the Four Principles of Negligence
Duty of Care
For liability to exist in any personal injury case, it must be established that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff. This is pretty straightforward in a boating accident. Everyone who takes out a boat owes a duty of care to those on the water.
Now the simple establishment of a duty care does not mean the plaintiff is at fault, but it is exceedingly difficult to imagine a boating accident case where duty of care was not self-evident.
Breach of Duty
With duty established, the plaintiff must now show that this duty was breached. Operating a boat while intoxicated would be a good example of the defendant breaching their duty. While Florida law does allow for boat operators to have an alcoholic beverage, the same rules apply here as do on the road with drivers. A blood alcohol level at or above .08 is considered to be legal intoxication.
Another example might be taking the boat into an unsafe area. The most common boating accidents are slip and falls, including falling overboard and drowning. The boat operator who knowingly decided to take their vessel into exceptionally choppy waters can be found to have breached their duty of care to the passengers. The same logic goes for taking a boat out in stormy weather or unsafe conditions.
The “wake” of a boat–the wave and undertow that it creates–can make a boat operator liable for another vessel’s accident, even if there was no physical contact between the two boats. A factor in determining liability here will be whether the boat was taken into the “no wake zones” that exist in Florida waters.
Marinas have an obligation to rent their boats to people who will use them safely. Renting a vessel to someone who doesn’t have their Boating Safety Education Identification Card could be seen as a breach of duty. The same goes for renting to someone who is obviously intoxicated.
Furthermore, marinas must also ensure their boats are maintained and that proper safety equipment–including life jackets for all passengers–is aboard each vessel.
It’s true that marinas typically have their renters sign a waiver of liability. That can protect the marina in some instances, but not all. The terms of a waiver agreement must be easily understood by the average rental–you’re not supposed to need a law degree to read a basic waiver on a Saturday afternoon. What’s more, waivers are unlikely to protect the marina if the breach was particularly grievous.
When a court considers breach of duty, they will consider how a reasonable person would have acted in facing the same circumstances. Let’s take the example of taking the boat out in bad weather. It’s not uncommon for weather patterns, particularly on the ocean or the Gulf, to change dramatically. It’s well possible the court concludes that a reasonable person would in fact, have taken the boat out, and that subsequent bad weather was unfortunate timing. In this case, there is no breach of duty.
Assuming the plaintiff has established both duty of care and the breach of it by the defendant, the next step is to show causation. It must be established that the breach of duty is in fact, the cause of the boating accident.
For example, the boat operator took their vessel into choppy waters and the court does conclude that this constituted reckless behavior that a reasonable person would not have done–in other words, a breach of duty. The result is that a person fell overboard and hit the boat in such a way that serious spinal injuries have been suffered.
What if the person themselves was drinking heavily and ignoring admonitions from both the operator and the passengers to stay away from the railing? The defense can make the argument that even if the boat operator was negligent in taking the vessel into this rough area, that action was not the cause of the accident–the plaintiff’s own negligence was.
This leads us into a key principle in Florida’s personal injury law, that of comparative negligence. Considering the example above, it’s easy to envision any number of cases where fault might be shared between the plaintiff and defendant. Comparative negligence is designed to reflect this reality by adjusting the amount in damages that can be paid out.
So, let’s return to our person who suffered spinal injuries after drinking too much and acting recklessly as a passenger, while the boat operator was also reckless. The ultimate amount of the damages is assessed at $1 million dollars.
Yet the court also concludes that the plaintiff shares the blame in equal proportion to the defendant. In that event, the defendant’s insurance will only pay out $500,000–half of the total damages. The courts can assign blame in varying percentages. A plaintiff that was only 30 percent at fault, could collect $700,000 on the million-dollar judgment (70 percent of the amount).
After duty of care, breach and causation are established, the plaintiff must now show that they were damaged because of this. Damage, for the purposes of a personal injury lawsuit, can be defined as medical expenses, lost wages, emotional trauma, loss of enjoyment and more.
With so many boating accidents resulting in severe injuries or death, damages are another area that will often be self-evident. An example where it might not be is if someone fell off a boat that was recklessly operated, but after calling for help was able to be pulled back aboard with no physical injuries. It was a scary experience to be sure, but proving damages is going to be a tough case.
Another area where damages might be contested is if the plaintiff had some pre-existing physical problems. Here’s an example–the plaintiff was water-skiing. The defendant took the boat into a rough area of the water. The defendant was thinking they’d challenge the plaintiff to navigate some choppy seas. But the plaintiff didn’t ask for this challenge, and they end up suffering back injuries.
This meets a lot of the criteria necessary to win a boating accident lawsuit. But what if the plaintiff had back problems prior to this? Especially back issues that can be documented by previous medical records. The defendant can credibly argue that, whatever their mistakes as a boat operator were, those mistakes were not the cause of these damages. An example like this is another situation where the court may benefit from having the flexibility of comparative negligence to make a partial award.
Boating accidents are serious business and that means the lawsuits that arise from there are too. The rules of comparative negligence mean that even shifting fault a tiny bit can have consequences adding up to thousands of dollars. It all points to the need for good legal representation that knows the law and brings a fighting tenacity to each and every detail of your case. That’s what we do at The Law Offices of Jason K.S. Porter, P.A. Call us today at (904) 701-0591 or contact us online to set up an initial consultation.