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Frequently Asked Maritime Law Questions

As a practicing maritime attorney in South Florida, I often get questions regarding maritime law issues. While each case is different, here are some answers to those questions I hear most often.

1.    What is the difference between maritime law and admiralty law?

The difference between admiralty and maritime law has eroded ever since the American Revolution. Today these terms are used interchangeably, but they originated with different meanings. Admiralty originally referred to specific admiralty courts in England and the American colonies that had jurisdiction over contracts and torts on the high seas. Maritime law referred to the common law that developed within these admiralty courts. Time has since eroded these terms, and their meanings have now become synonymous.

2.    What is the difference between OUI, DUI, DWI, and BUI?

An OUI is operating under the influence. A DUI is driving under the influence. A DWI is driving while intoxicated. They are all basically the same thing. Different states label the violation of these statutes differently, and in some states, they carry different penalties. In Florida, the statute labels this type of violation as a DUI. If the violation occurs on the water, Florida labels it a BUI (Boating Under the Influence).

Florida’s BUI statute states that a person with either a breath or blood alcohol level of 0.08 or more shall be punished by a fine of not less than $500 or more than $1,000 for a first conviction and imprisonment for not more than 6 months. A second conviction brings a fine of not less than $1,000 or more than $2,000 and imprisonment for not more than 9 months. With subsequent convictions, the penalties only become higher. Also, the penalties significantly grow if the BUI causes an accident, injury, or death. Unlike usual DUI’s, a BUI also requires a short impoundment of the vessel.

3.    I was in a boating accident. Should I call the Coast Guard?

It depends. If the accident is in international waters (3 miles offshore), then the Coast Guard would be the best source to call for help. If the accident is within the territorial waters of Florida, then you are required to call the Division of Law Enforcement for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the sheriff of the county where the accident occurred, or the police department of the municipality in which the accident occurred.

4.    What type of information should I collect if I am involved in a boating accident?

You are required to stop your vessel immediately at the scene of the accident and give assistance to anyone injured in the accident unless the action would endanger you, your vessel crew or passengers. You are also required to give and receive, in writing, the names of the parties involved, addresses, and the identifying number of the vessels involved. Your local policing agency has form boating accident reports that must be filled out. Failing to report an accident and failure to render aid are both criminal offenses.

5.    If I was following the boater’s right-of-way rules and got into an accident, am I liable?

It depends. Maritime law is different than the laws on land. Fault in a maritime collision is determined by (1) negligence on the part of the navigators or their lack of proper care or skill, (2) violating the rules of the water by statute or local authority, and (3) 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. Also, there exists in maritime law the rule of error in extremis. This occurs when one ship has by wrong maneuvers placed 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.

6.    I was a passenger in a boating accident and was injured.  Who is responsible for my injuries?

The at-fault party is responsible. That may include the boat that collided with yours, or it may be the boat of which you are a passenger. Ultimately, the liability rests on the captain of the vessel that was at fault. Another party that may be responsible is the owner of the vessel if they negligently hired an incompetent captain.

7.    My boat was hit by another boat and sustained damage. Will the other boater’s insurance cover these damages?

Yes, if they have valid insurance at the time of the accident. If not, there exists another remedy in maritime law called the maritime lien. A lien may be placed on the boat that caused the accident. You can then arrest the boat and have it sold to pay for your claim. Property damages on the water are calculated differently than on land. For property damages that do not amount to a total loss, damages include (1) the cost of repairs or diminution of value if no repairs are made, (2) detention or loss of earnings for the period the vessel is out of service if a commercial ship, and (3) incidental costs such as pilotage, salvage, and wharfage costs. When the vessel is declared a total loss, damages can include (1) the market value of the vessel at the time of the loss (plus any pending freight) and (2) salvage, wreck removal, pollution cleanup, and other incidental costs (loss of earnings and detention are not recoverable).

8.    I have been injured in a boating accident, how long do I have to file a lawsuit?

The Statute of Limitations (SOL) for personal injuries in Florida is 4 years.  However, if your injury is within admiralty/maritime jurisdiction, you must bring your lawsuit within 3 years. But keep in mind that if you were injured on a cruise, the SOL is even less.

The law on land is different than that on the water. Hiring an attorney that knows these distinctions is important to get the best value for your case. 

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