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Boating Accidents in Florida (Part 1 of 3)

Florida leads the nation with more than 900,000 registered boating vessels.  With that many boats in the water, there are bound to be a lot of accidents.  To be classified as a “reportable” boating accident, the event must meet at least one of the following five criteria: a person dies, a person disappears under circumstances that indicate possible death or injury,  a person is injured requiring medical treatment beyond immediate first aid,  at least $2,000 total in property damage to the vessel or other property, or total loss of a vessel. In 2012, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) released the top 20 Florida counties with the most boating accidents, and here are the top 10:

  1.   Monroe County – 100 Accidents and 5 Fatalities out of 26,461 Registered Vessels
  2.   Miami-Dade County – 81 Accidents and 3 Fatalities out of 60,572 Registered Vessels
  3.   Pinellas County – 49 Accidents and 3 Fatalities out of 47,680 Registered Vessels
  4.   Palm Beach County – 49 Accidents and 0 Fatalities out of 33,363 Registered Vessels
  5.   Okaloosa County – 31 Accidents and 2 Fatalities out of 17,905 Registered Vessels
  6.   Broward County – 30 Accidents and 1 Fatality out of 42,131 Registered Vessels
  7.   Brevard County – 29 Accidents and 1 Fatality out of 33,943 Registered Vessels
  8.   Lee County – 28 Accidents and 1 Fatality out of 43,194 Registered Vessels
  9.   Collier County – 24 Accidents and 1 Fatality out of 21,671 Registered Vessels
  10.   Hillsborough County – 16 Accidents and 2 Fatalities out of 40,995 Registered Vessels

Accidents that happen on the water are different than on land 

Unlike accidents or collisions on land, there are several scenarios where liability has to be determined differently due to the conditions of the sea.  These circumstances include:

  1. Inevitable accidents.  This situation occurs when it is not possible to prevent the accident by the exercise of due care, caution and nautical skill.  It is generally attributed to an act of God, such as a sudden squall or gale at night safe navigation is impossible.
  2. Error in extremis.  When one ship has by wrong maneuvers places another ship in a position of extreme danger and the other ship should not be held to blame if they have done something wrong and did not maneuver with perfect skill.

Similar to land-based accidents, there are certain ways to prove liability, or who is at fault.  Fault in a maritime collision is determined by negligence on the part of the navigators or their lack of proper care or skill, violating the rules of the water by statute or local authority, and failure to comply with local navigational usage or customs.  When both parties are equally at fault or when it is not possible to fairly measure the comparative degree of fault, liability is automatically allocated equally.

However, in maritime law their also exists what is termed as The Pennsylvania RuleStemming from an 1873 U.S. Supreme Court case, The Pennsylvania Rule states that where a vessel is guilty of a statutory violation (such as using a bell instead of a foghorn in deep fog to warn other vessels), the violating ship is required to show “not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.” 

What this basically means is that when a vessel violates a safety standard that was intended to protect against the accident that happened, that vessel is presumed to be at fault unless they can show that they absolutely were not at fault. 

Likewise, property damages on the water are calculated differently than on land.  For property damages that do not amount to a total loss, damages include the cost of repairs or diminution of value if no repairs are made, detention or loss of earnings for the period the vessel is out of service if a commercial ship, and incidental costs such as pilotage, salvage and wharfage costs.  When the vessel is declared a total loss, damages can include the market value of the vessel at the time of the loss (plus any pending freight) as well as salvage, wreck removal, pollution cleanup, and other incidental costs (loss of earnings and detention are not recoverable).

The law of the sea is different than that of the law of the land.  While accidents on land and on the water both require liability, causation and damages to be proven in order to prevail in a lawsuit, the method of proving these essential elements to a claim are different, and it takes an experienced maritime attorney to wade through the rough waters of a maritime claim.

Next month we will discuss the personal injury side of a maritime accident, and how it differs from a personal injury on land.

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