According to a 2013 boating accident report, compiled by the Florida Fish & Wild Conservation Commission, Florida leads the nation with the most registered vessels. In 2012, there were a total of 736 reportable boating accidents. Of the top 10 counties for boating accidents, Pinellas ranked fifth. As we enter the peak of summer, the same FWCC report noted that July traditionally sees the highest number of boating accidents and boating fatalities. The FWCC website contains of list of approved courses, some of which are free. I personally have a boating safety card and occasionally refresh myself with familiarity of the navigational rules.
Florida Statute §327.32 declares vessels as dangerous instrumentalities. This means that the operator of a vessel, by law is to exercise the highest degree of care in order to prevent injuries; Liability for reckless or careless operation is confined to the operator in immediate charge and NOT imposed upon the owner unless the owner is the operator or present when injury occurs. Therefore, if you rent a boat this summer and get into an accident, the livery is not automatically vicariously liable. Unlike motor vehicles where the owner can be held vicariously liable for the actions of the driver, a livery cannot is not liable unless it negligently entrusts the vessel to the renter.
The liability of liveries for personal watercraft (PWCs) such as jet-ski, regular pleasure boats, and pontoons is often the heart of a personal injury action occurring on the water. The practical reasons are financial. A single guy renting jet-skis from a dock is not as financially backed as a marina owner. Consider the case of McVicker v. Kolb, 839 So.2d 768 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003) where a 14 year old was seriously injured after when her rented jet-ski collided with an anchored vessel. Kolb owned a business renting jet-skis from a dock owned by a marina; essentially the marina was the lessor. Without a doubt, Kolb was in violation of numerous Florida statutes for renting a PWC to a person under 14, failing to provide pre-ride instructions, and failing to have insurance. The theory against the marina was that it was liable because it knew or should have known that Kolb was committing crimes by violating these statutes. The appellate court disagreed reasoning that the lessor did not control the day to day operation of Kolb’s business.
However, a different outcome was seen in Meyers v. Scoot-A-Way Corp., 662 So.2d 411 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995) where the court found a lessor liable because a PWC was not seaworthy. In Meyers, a 16-year old was injured while operating a waverunner wherein the lessor removed the protective padding around the steering wheel area; the padding was originally installed by the manufacturer. The PWC was leased from Scoot-A-Way, which was owned by a hotel. The Court found that that both the lessee and lessor knowingly rented a PWC that was not seaworthy, in violation of Fla. Stat. 327.54(1)(d).
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While the doctrine of unseaworthiness operates as a strict liability cause of action for injured seaman, it is not available to passengers or operators of PWCs in actions against liveries. However, Fla. Stat. 327.54 operates as a consumer protection-esque statute designed to ensure the renters are protected. Specifically provided for is that livery may not knowingly lease, hire, or rent a vessel to any person when the vessel is not seaworthy. Furthermore, a livery is required to have, in full force and effect, an insurance policy from a licensed Florida carrier with liability coverage of at least $500,000.00 per person and $1,000,000.00 per event. Proof of insurance must be available for inspection at the location where PWCs are being leased, hired, or rented; and renters shall be provided the carrier’s name and address.
The best advice is to only rent PWCs, pleasure boats, and the like from insured liveries; if you are unsure ask for proof of insurance. In the event the livery is uninsured, which is a punishable second degree misdemeanor, and an injury occurs, general maritime law will often hold the owner/lessor as not being vicariously liable absent a showing of negligent entrustment.
PWCs are statutory regulated and are required to be operated in a reasonable and prudent manner. Maneuvers which unreasonably endanger life, limb, or property constitute reckless operation of a vessel. Lessors are prohibited from renting a PWC to anyone under 14. Furthermore, it is unlawful for owners of any leased, hired, or rented PWC to permit the PWC to be operated by anyone who has not received instructions on its safe-handling. In Pinellas County, PWCs accounted for the second most common type of vessel involved in boating accidents last year; Pinellas was third in the state for the number of PWC accident. The data on PWC accidents, compiled by the FWCC, is extensive and telling.
As you take to the waterways around Tampa Bay this summer remember the following:
- Be familiar with local waters
- Have a proper look-out
- Liveries are generally not liable for injuries caused by the negligent operation of a vessel, absent negligent entrustment
- Liveries MUST provide pre-ride instructions for vessels in excess of 10hp
- PWCs operate differently than regular motor boats
- Always yield the right of way to sailboats
- Be cognizant of swimmers, divers, fixed objects, no-wake zones, manatees, and the meaning of navigational aids
Finally, if you end up finding yourself injured in a boating accident or know someone that has been, call Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA for a free consultation regarding your rights in a maritime personal injury case.
Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765