Boating is a popular outdoor activity in Florida because of the state’s unique geography and mild climate. Each year, thousands of tourists descend upon the state to take advantage of its natural beauty and the opportunities to get out on the water. As fun as boating can be, however, accidents do happen.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s law enforcement division is responsible for enforcing the state’s boating safety laws. According to the agency’s 2015 Boating Accidents Statistical Report, there were 737 reportable boating accidents in the year 2015. A boating accident qualifies as “reportable” if it meets one of the following five criteria:
Overall, collisions with other vessels were the leading type of accident, accounting for 26 percent of the total. May was the month with the highest number of accidents, while Miami-Dade County reported the highest number of accidents and injuries in the state. When it comes to fatalities from boating accidents, there were 52 fatal accidents in 2015, which resulted in 55 fatalities. The leading cause of death in fatal boating accidents was drowning (64 percent), while 42 percent of all fatal accidents involved falling overboard. Additionally, alcohol or drug use was reported to have played a role in 19 percent of boating fatalities.
Most boating accidents are not caused by bad weather or hazardous sea conditions; rather, the vast majority are caused by human error during times when visibility is good, winds are light, and the water is calm. Some of the most common recreational boating accidents include:
Collision with another vessel: As a state that is surrounded on three sides by ocean and that contains numbers lakes and rivers, boating is a rather popular recreational activity in Florida. In fact, Florida leads the nation in the number of registered vessels, counting 915,713 in 2015. As such, our waterways can become quite crowded, especially during the summer months and around the coasts of major cities like St. Petersburg. Crowded waterways increase the risk that two boats will collide with each other, which can cause injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to falling overboard.
Hitting another boat’s wake: Boats create waves called wakes that trail behind the boat when they are in motion. The size of these wakes depends on the boat’s size and speed and can become large. If another boat comes too close to this wake or approaches it at the wrong angle, it can cause the vessel to capsize.
Hitting a wave: Hitting a wave raises the same concerns as hitting a large wake – depending on the size of the wave, it can either swamp the boat and cause it to take on water and possibly sink, or it can cause the boat to capsize if it hits it the wrong way.
Collision with a fixed object or land: There are a variety of obstacles on the water that boaters must pay attention to besides other boats, such as buoys, docks, and sandbars. Hitting any of these fixed objects can cause a violent jolt, which can cause passengers to be thrown about or tossed overboard.
Failure to have proper safety equipment on board: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission requires boats operating on Florida waterways to have certain safety devices on board, including personal flotation devices, fire extinguishers, distress signals, and proper lighting. The failure to follow these guidelines can cause accidents and exacerbate injuries.
Liability for most boating accidents is based in negligence – the same as with liability for car accidents on land. To prevail on a claim for negligence, the plaintiff must show that the boat operator failed to operate the boat in a reasonably safe manner and that this failure caused an injury to the plaintiff. This can include any conduct that falls below the standard of care that a reasonable boat operator would exercise, including taking the boat out when weather conditions are not optimal, turning the boat the wrong way into a wave and causing it to capsize, going too fast to avoid hitting another vessel, or failing to provide adequate safety equipment.
Often, the passengers on a recreational boating vessel are not just the owner and his family and friends – they are members of the public who pay the boat operator to take them for a ride. In these cases, the company that owns the boat and employs the operator will often require passengers to sign a liability waiver that releases them from legal liability for accidents. For a liability waiver to be enforceable, it must clearly and unambiguously state what rights are being waived, including the right to sue for negligence–and the terms of the agreement must be such that an ordinary knowledgeable person would be able to understand at the time of signing exactly what they were waiving.
Although these types of agreements are officially disfavored by the courts, courts will enforce them as long as they meet these two requirements. The only way to defeat a liability waiver is to show that there was ambiguity in it, which could include ambiguity about what activities are contemplated by the agreement, the term or length of the agreement, or the conduct that is subject is subject to the release of liability. If there are any ambiguities in the terms that would lead an ordinary knowledgeable person to wonder about the extent of the rights they are waiving, courts will not enforce the agreement. Thus, while signing a liability waiver is not an absolute bar to recovery, doing so makes prevailing in a negligence action much more difficult.
If you have been injured in a boating accident, you may be able to recover damages even if you signed a liability waiver. Please contact Dolman Law Group for a free consultation with a St. Petersburg boat accident lawyer by calling 727-451-6900.