Summer is in full swing, with lakes and oceans are abuzz with vacationers frolicking on watercraft ranging from motor boats and jet skis to yachts. Unfortunately, the same dangers faced by motor vehicle operators driving to water recreation activities—intoxication, speeding, inexperienced drivers and defective vehicles—as well as hazards unique to water-borne transportation, can cause serious injury or death to those on the water.
In 2013, 4,062 boating accidents were reported that resulted in 560 deaths, 2,620 personal injuries and more than $39 million in property damages, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Drowning was the cause of death in three-quarters of the reported fatalities, as the lion’s share of victims were not wearing life jackets, and the principal factors contributing to boating mishaps were operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed, and machinery failure, according to the Coast Guard statistics. The majority of serious damage to water craft is caused by fire and explosions.
Adding to the risk of personal injury is that unlike statutes governing land motor vehicles, many states’ laws permit children 12 and older to operate personal watercraft. Most, but not all, states mandate that boat operators be certified and obtain a watercraft operating license, as well as complete a boating safety course. Still, inadequate training, reckless operation, and the failure to equip watercraft with fire extinguishers, flotation devices and other safety equipment are behind many personal injuries suffered on water.
Alcohol use played a role in 16 percent of boating fatalities last year, according to Coast Guard statistics. As is the case with land vehicles, “hit and run” boaters who flee an accident scene may face felony charges.
Massachusetts law requires boat operators to submit a written report to the Registry of Motor Vehicles if involved in a motorboat accident in which someone is killed or injured, or whose disappearance suggests death or injury, or if property damage exceeds $500. If a fatality occurs, the report must be filed within 48 hours of the mishap; otherwise, within five days of the accident. Other than for statistical use, such reports are not considered public records and are inadmissible evidence in court proceedings. Absent the risk of serious danger to themselves or others, motorboat operators must “render to other persons affected by the boating accident such assistance as may be practicable and as may be necessary in order to save them from any danger caused by the boating accident.”
Massachusetts regulations detail the data required to obtain a boating operator certificate and the information necessary to complete an accident report, including the names of persons and vessels involved, injuries and property damage, and the date, time, location and weather conditions regarding the accident. Massachusetts courts have recognized that admiralty law does recognize an “assumption of the risk” defense concerning individuals injured in boating accidents. As with most personal injury claims, a boating accident plaintiff mush prove his or her injury was caused by the defendant’s negligence and may recover damages, including medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
Boat owners should enjoy the relaxation, recreation and freedom of being on the water, but remember to keep their vessels “ship-shape” and operate them with due care and consideration for swimmers and other watercraft users.