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Are Boat Guests and Passengers Responsible for Their Safety?

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Many accidents on boats are due to the operators paying insufficient attention to traffic, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or moving too fast. In 2020, 44% of boating accidents in Florida were due to the inattention of boaters. But if you’re a guest on someone else’s boat, does that mean you bear no responsibility — or do you still have a duty to look out for your own safety? 

That might sound like a simple question, but it can get complex. To give you the full picture, we’ll cover:

  • How liability works for boating accidents 
  • Responsibilities of boat operators and guests
  • How boat guests should prepare for a trip
  • How boat operators should prepare for a trip

Liability Following Boat Accidents

If a boating accident takes place, five parties could potentially be responsible:

  1. The boat operator
  2. The boat owner
  3. The boat passenger
  4. The boat manufacturer
  5. The rental company (if applicable)

When a boating accident happens, federal law dictates that you have 48 hours to file a report to authorities. This process kickstarts a process that potentially involves collecting eyewitness statements and evidence, which may help figure out who is responsible for the accident. Let’s look at the responsibilities of each party outlined above.

It’s well-known that the operator of a boat must handle basic health and safety procedures, just as a car driver must look out for their passengers’ safety. This includes the requirement to have a designated person on the boat to serve as the “look out.”

Plus, federal law requires boat operators to provide wearable life jackets to all passengers, which must be approved by the Coast Guard. They should also follow boating laws, drive safely, have the proper training to operate their vehicle, and be sober.

The boat’s owner could be at fault if they loaned the ship to someone who wasn’t qualified for the job. Requirements to operate a boat vary depending on when you were born, the size of the boat, and where you’re using it. For instance, in Florida, those born after January, 1, 1988 need to pass an approved course to operate a boat of ten horsepower or more.

Meanwhile, the manufacturer can be at fault if a defect contributed to an accident, and the rental company may be in the wrong if there were maintenance-related issues the company failed to fix.

Finally, the passenger can contribute to an accident if they’re acting recklessly or stopping the boat operator from doing their job. For instance, a passenger could prevent the operator from steering the boat properly or, in extreme cases, attack the other passengers and inflict physical damage to the ship.

Responsibilities of Boat Passengers vs. Operators

There are some situations where it’s clear the passenger is at fault, such as if they assault the operator and stop them from being able to drive. But in other cases, the lines may be blurred.

The basic idea here is that a boat owner owes their guests reasonable care. However, the definition of “reasonable care” is more complex for boats than it would be for land since there’s a lot more that could go wrong. Boat rides can be turbulent, and the ships themselves have slippery surfaces by nature — so, regardless of how safe the boat operator makes things, 100% safety is never a guarantee.

It therefore follows that passengers should put some thought into the conditions of a journey and how well they’ll be able to handle them. Although a boat operator must follow the correct health and safety procedures, they don’t have to make everything completely accident-proof by law since this would be practically impossible.

However, it’s very important for boat operators to let their guests know about potential hazards and risks; if they fail to do so, passengers could take legal action against them. Sometimes, boaters may believe that certain dangers are obvious (because they’re obvious to them), but passengers may lack the knowledge to spot them. So, a lack of clarity on their part is a failure to assure safety. Also, boat operators are responsible for interfering with their passengers’ reckless behavior to some degree.

How Guests Can Look Out for Themselves

Passengers may be held responsible for their actions if they hinder the ability of the boat operator to maintain safety practices, especially if they do so to an extent the boat operator couldn’t stop them.

It’s also a good idea to let the operator know if you have a medical condition or anything else that could compromise your safety — if this contributes to an accident, your ability to take legal action may be limited. 

How Boat Operators Can Look Out for Their Guests

The most important thing for boat operators is to be aware of exactly how a boat works — including how it handles the dangers of different environments. For instance, do you know how to make small repairs or how a ship responds to poor weather conditions?

It helps to establish a pre-departure checklist and discuss it with your guests before going out on the water. This includes things like:

  • Knowing how to use emergency equipment (e.g., fire extinguisher)
  • Knowing how to repair essential equipment (.e., steering system and engine)
  • Knowing the details of the guests, such as if they have experience, if they can swim, if they will be drinking alcohol
  • Knowing how busy a waterway will be
  • Checking the weather report beforehand and preparing for it
  • Storing spare parts, life jackets for everyone, and a survival kit

Don’t Wait for a Second Longer to Take Action

Ultimately, the boat operator tends to be the one who carries the most responsibilities for health and safety, but there can be cases when the rental company, boat owner, manufacturer, or even passenger is at fault. Therefore, everyone traveling on a ship should take care to maximize safety beforehand.

In the unfortunate case that things turn sour, knowing you’ve done everything right gives you the best chance of navigating a legal case successfully. If you’re already involved in a case of this kind, it’s important to talk to a cruise ship lawyer to get a better picture of your individual circumstances. At Rivkind Lawyers, we’re maritime and admiralty lawyers qualified in Florida to handle all kinds of legal matters related to boating accidents. Contact us today for a free case review to kickstart the process.

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