Who is liable in a boating accident?

In a boating accident, one of the following parties can be held liable: the operator of the boat, the owner, the manufacturer, the rental company, or even a passenger. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are cases when, due to unforeseen circumstances, liability can be difficult or even impossible to determine.


There are more than 12,000,000 boats registered in the U.S., and each year more than 4,700 recreational boating accidents take place, causing the death of more than 700 individuals.

Even if boating accidents are not fatal in most cases, passengers can still suffer severe, debilitating injuries, including:

There are many factors that can cause a boating accident, from operator negligence to malfunctioning equipment and harsh weather conditions. When boating accidents happen, injured victims have the right to file financial claims against responsible parties.

However, determining liability in boating accidents is often difficult and requires the investigation of experts, as water tends to ruin the traces of the accident, making the accident reconstruction quite challenging.

Some examples of parties that might be held responsible for boating accidents include:

  • The operator of the boat: they failed to provide reasonable safety for the passengers, were intoxicated while operating the vessel, were engaged in reckless operations, or disregarded boating laws.

    On recreational boats, an approved life jacket that is the correct size for the wearer and in good condition must be available for each person. Owners and masters who do not have enough life jackets on board or who do not have their passengers wear life jackets when required are liable for penalties.

    In general, Federal law requires that boaters have a Coast Guard-approved wearable life jacket (Type I, II, or III) for each person onboard the vessel. Boats greater than 16 feet in length must carry a Coast Guard-approved throwable device (Type IV).

    On a vessel underway, children under 13 years of age must wear an appropriate U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable life jacket unless they are below the deck or within an enclosed cabin. If a state has established a child life jacket wear requirement that differs from the Coast Guard requirement, the state regulation will apply to waters subject to that state's jurisdiction.

  • The operator of the boat who failed to interfere with the passengers' reckless behavior, although he was aware of it.
  • The owner of the boat if they knowingly loaned the boat to someone who was not qualified to operate it.

    The NASBLA boating courses are an accreditation program that the Coast Guard accepts as the national standard of certification and training for operating a boat. In Florida, boat operators 21 years old or younger must carry a photo ID while operating the vessel and take an approved boating safety course to obtain a Boating Safety Identification Card. This card is valid for life and enables you to use a boat with ten horsepower or more.

    To operate a motorboat with ten horsepower or more, boat operators who were born on or after January 1, 1988, are required by law to obtain a Florida Boating Safety Education Identification Card. The state of Florida does not have a "boating license."

    The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)-issued Boating Safety Identification Card is proof that you successfully completed the online boating course.

    The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) is responsible for reviewing and approving recreational boating safety courses in the United States. NASBLA-approved courses must meet National Boating Education Standards 1 through 7 and 9. All states and territories must maintain their state-specific topics in standard 8. The U.S. Coast Guard recognizes all recreational boating safety courses approved by NASBLA.

  • A passenger of the boat who acted in a reckless manner or prevented the operator from fulfilling their duty.
  • The manufacturer of the boat, in case the accident resulted from a manufacturing defect.
  • The rental company, in case they failed to fix maintenance problems.

For a boat to be Coast Guard documented, it must be at least five net tons and must be wholly owned by a citizen of the U.S. Net tonnage is a measure of a vessel's volume and should not be confused with the vessel's weight, which may also be expressed in tons. Most ships that are longer than 25 feet will measure five net tons or more under the Simplified Measurement System, although they may measure less than five net tons if formally measured. For information about how tonnages are determined, including the simplified measurement form that calculates tonnages, click HERE.

How can The Law Offices of Sean M. Cleary help you?

The damages that can be recovered by filing a boating accident lawsuit can include any type of damages in an amount that depends on the severity of the injuries, the circumstances of the accident, and whether or not you share liability for the accident.

If you suffered the following types of losses, you have the right to monetary compensation if you can prove:

  • The defendant is liable for the accident.
  • The accident resulted in injuries.
  • The injuries led to financial losses.

As in other personal injury cases, you can recover the following types of damages:

  • Costs of medical expenses and treatment
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of income during recovery
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Loss of companionship

The general purpose of monetary awards is to restore your pre-accident financial condition. In case the defendant acted in an extremely negligent manner or their attitude can be characterized as outrageous, you might be awarded punitive damages as well.

Another issue boating accident victims should consider is that boating injury cases are subject to maritime law rather than state personal injury laws. That means they will be handled differently and settled according to other laws than terrestrial personal injury cases.

If you, or a loved one, were injured in a boat accident due to someone else’s negligence, call our experienced boating accident attorney. An attorney has the necessary skills to help you face the challenges faced when fighting to recover the compensation you deserve.

Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided on this site is not formal legal advice, also the site does not allow you to form an attorney-client relationship.