Commercial and private boat accidents are on the rise nationwide, and recent high-profile accidents have raised concerns about vessel safety, operator competence, and ultimately, liability for injuries and fatalities in the worst-case scenarios.
If you’ve survived a boating accident, you might have sustained traumatic physical or emotional injuries. Or, if you’re the family member of a victim who didn’t survive an accident, you may wonder who is responsible for your loss and how you can hold them accountable.
Many “accidents” aren’t accidents at all. Often, they may be the result of poor judgment or negligence. The top three causes of boating accidents are operator incompetence, alcohol, and hazardous water. Equipment failure is also a major contributor to safe boating, especially when water and weather conditions intercede. Most of these factors are within the control of the boat captain (or “operator”) though other hazards can cause serious injury or death in spite of the operator’s skill and best efforts.
Operators of Involved Vessels
The boat’s owner is ultimately responsible for the safety of their passengers and crew, and for maintaining their vessel in safe working order. If the boat owner/operator is unprepared and negligent in their duties, you may be entitled to compensation when an accident occurs as a result.
Life Jacket Provisions
The vessel’s owner or operator is responsible for providing U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices (PFDs) for every passenger. These PFDs must be in good condition and checked annually for wear and damage. What’s more, PFDs should suitably fit each passenger, be they a small child or an oversized adult. Responsible boat owners can request their guests bring their own PFDs according to their own specific size requirements, providing guidelines set forth by the U.S.C.G. to ensure they’re properly equipped when they board the vessel.
The operator must know when PFDs are required by law. When conditions supersede basic legal requirements, boat operators must be willing and able to use good judgment in ordering passengers to use their assigned safety equipment. There is no excuse for injuries or loss of life that can be prevented or lessened with the aid of appropriate PFDs and, for vessels 16 feet and longer, the required Type IV throwable devices.
Boating and alcohol don’t mix. People’s attitudes toward drinking and boating are often much more casual than those toward road vehicles and DUI concerns. When everyone is expecting a fun day on Illinois lakes or rivers, the boat owner must set aside fears of being a “buzzkill” by insisting that alcohol is checked at the dock.
It should go without saying that the same hindrances to judgment and reaction time attributed to alcohol consumption on land apply to activities on the water. Perhaps more so, given unpredictable conditions and the consequences of high-speed accidents and equipment failure in open water.
The vessel operator alone is responsible for making sure that any person who takes the helm or assists with sailing equipment is able to conduct their duties in a safe and sober manner.
Navigation Skills & Competence
Operators must understand how to safely navigate without the aid of GPS equipment and digital compasses. Power failures or shorts in open water, especially resulting from a weather event, shouldn’t leave the captain incapable of guiding their vessel and passengers back to shore.
Competent operators are able to read and understand local charts, buoy markers, and signals in order to avoid boat traffic conflicts and collisions with fixed objects. They need to know how to determine whether or not their vessel is on a collision course with another boat, and to maneuver the craft accordingly.
Here in the Chicago area, wave-generating wind is always a factor, and lightning storms are a common occurrence in the Great Lakes region. Operators need to know how to control their boats under varying conditions, maintaining safe speeds and maneuvering skills in all boating zones regardless of weather and wave chop. They should have a basic understanding of weather and know when to seek shelter well before a storm poses a threat.
Boat Maintenance & Equipment
Boat ownership is a big responsibility year round. Onboard and outboard engines require routine servicing. Hulls and propellers need to be inspected for cracks or other damage, and exhaust systems—especially in boats with cabins—require attention to prevent illness and compromise of cognitive function. Safety equipment, such as the following, needs to be appropriate to the boat’s size, properly stowed, and regularly inspected for damage and viability:
- Navigation lights
- Fire extinguishers
- Bilge pumps or bailers
- Flotation devices
- First aid kits
- Flag signals
Safe and responsible operators will take the time to perform a safety talk with their passengers, informing them of “man overboard” protocols and the location and safe use of emergency equipment. Boat captains and personal watercraft rentals or guides can save lives with a simple pre-launch safety briefing.
Sometimes a passenger does not behave in a safe manner. Refusing to remain seated, failure to follow “captain’s orders”, or acting out of hand due to drug or alcohol consumption compromises the safety of everyone on board, and that of other boaters. Onboard distractions caused by non-compliant fellow passengers, their children, or their pets are as dangerous to boaters as they are to road vehicle passengers, airline passengers, and pedestrians.
Well-maintained equipment isn’t immune to failure. Poor engineering, assembly, or substandard materials can leave boaters in precarious situations. Imagine the ramifications of the following equipment issues:
- Cracked hull
- Lost propeller
- Compromised fuel or galley propane line
- Faulty bilge pump
- Electrical fire or short
- Fire extinguisher failure
- Navigation system failure
- PFD failure
- Cracked or broken keel
- Substandard materials or engineering for winches, sails, masts, and other equipment on non-motorized sailing vessels
Design flaws are another contributing factor in serious boating accidents. Consider the tragic duck boat accident in Missouri that occurred in the summer of 2018: The boat’s design prevented passengers from safely exiting the boat, and these design flaws had been the subject of controversy in accidents involving other duck boat tourism companies.
Other factors, such as ignoring weather warnings and not requiring—and possibly discouraging—passenger use of PFDs, put the Missouri company in the spotlight as an example of extreme negligence. In the wake of the Branson tragedy, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the duck boat design contributed to more than 40 deaths since 1999. This indicates a precedent for design hazard. If the manufacturer or commercial operator of the boat (or boats) involved in your accident produced or used a dangerous design, they could be liable for your loss.
Waterway Management & Enforcement Agencies
Navigation markers designed and placed to prevent boat accidents and intrusions into swimming areas, fixed hazards, and boat traffic lanes are essential to water recreation safety. On Lake Michigan, the U.S. Coast Guard maintains most markers, but liability is sometimes unclear on inland waterways.
A boat vs. swimmer accident on the Fox River in 2018 raised the question of waterway liability. As reported by CBS Chicago, the boat operator wasn’t found liable after striking and injuring a young boy, as he was operating the boat in a safe manner. Local residents questioned the McHenry County Sheriff’s Marine Unit—the agency responsible for patrolling that part of the river—for not establishing more of a presence near popular swimming areas. The accident also uncovered gaps in responsibility for boater and swimmer safety.
The incident occurred just offshore of Picnic Grove Park, where there are no roped swim buoys. Area and state agencies are unclear about who is responsible for installing and maintaining safety features on the river and adjacent public beaches, and they’ve demonstrated reluctance to speak with Daily Herald reporters.
Imagine if you were a private citizen trying to find answers on your own when the local park and waterway agencies can’t agree on culpability?
Abels & Annes, P.C. Is Your Lifeline
When you’re a passenger on a boat, you trust your captain and the operators of nearby vessels to competently and responsibly maintain and operate seaworthy vessels. You have faith that you’ll have an enjoyable experience on Illinois’ waterways, returning safely to port. When a boating accident prevents your safe return, you have the right to recover your costs—whether you’re a passenger, the captain of a boat struck by another vessel, or a swimmer injured due to negligence. Contact Abels & Annes, P.C. online today to help chart your course as you pursue the compensation you deserve.