Boating Accidents Lawsuits

Boating accidents can result in serious injury or death. When someone is injured in a boating accident, the victim may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit to pay for the expenses and to cover losses, including:

When a boating accident causes long-term damage, the injury victim may also be able to claim damages for:

Boating in the open water always carries the risk of a fatal drowning accident. If someone dies in a boating accident, the surviving family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit for compensation to cover the loss of financial support and funeral costs.

Determining negligence and who is at fault in a boating accident is similar to fault in a motor vehicle accident.

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When someone is injured in a boating accident, the victim may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit to pay for the expenses and to cover losses.

Our California personal injury attorneys discuss the frequently asked questions about garage door accidents:

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. Can I file a lawsuit after a boating accident?

Anyone injured in a boating accident may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit if another person or group caused or helped cause the accident. Under negligence law, a person is liable for injuries caused by his or her failure to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.1

A personal injury lawsuit can compensate the injury victim for their losses caused by the accident. A personal injury claim is also a way to hold those responsible for their actions that caused injury or harm to another.

2. What are my damages in a boating accident lawsuit?

When filing a personal injury lawsuit, the injury victim, or “plaintiff,” makes a demand for damages caused by the accident. This includes any costs or losses associated with the accident. Compensatory damages include both economic and noneconomic damages.

Economic damages cover the financial costs and losses of the accident. These damages can be shown through medical bills, pay stubs, and boat repair estimates. However, economic damages can also include future expenses, such as continuing medical care or the loss of earning potential.

Noneconomic damages may be more difficult to estimate. It is up to a jury to determine how much a plaintiff should receive in noneconomic damages. This includes compensation for the physical, emotional, and reputational damages caused by the accident.

Economic Compensatory Damages

Noneconomic Compensatory Damages

Medical Bills

Pain and Suffering

Long-term Care

Emotional Distress

Physical Therapy


Medical Supplies and Medication

Physical Impairment

Property Damage

Loss of Enjoyment of Life

Lost Wages


Lost Earning Capacity


Court Costs

Loss of Consortium

3. Who can I sue after a boating accident?

In a boating accident personal injury lawsuit, the injury victim will name as defendants anyone who may be responsible for causing the accident. If two or more parties may share responsibility for the accident, multiple parties may be named as potential defendants in a personal injury claim.

In a boating accident, possible defendants may include:

  • Boating operator;
  • Boat passenger;
  • Boat owner;
  • Boat manufacturer;
  • Jet ski rider;
  • Lifeguard; or
  • Anyone else involved in the accident.

3.1. Who is responsible in a recreational boating accident?

Most boating accidents involve recreational watercraft. This may involve a boating enthusiast taking family or friends out for a day on the water or to go fishing. Recreational watercraft includes:

  • Speedboats
  • Sailboats
  • Small yachts
  • Fishing boats
  • Jet skis and personal watercraft (PWCs)
  • Catamarans
  • Houseboats

Similar to motor vehicles, the driver or pilot, is responsible for operating the watercraft in a safe and responsible manner. Under Harbors and Navigation Code (HNC) 655, “no person shall use any vessel or manipulate water skis, an aquaplane, or a similar device in a reckless or negligent manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person.”2

Boat operators owe others a duty of care to use the boat in a way that does not endanger others. This involves following the rules of the waterways, following boating regulations, and watching out for other watercraft, swimmers, and any other obstacles. When a boat operator is negligent or reckless and causes an accident, the boat operator may be liable for any damages caused.34

To prove negligence in a boating accident case, the injury victim needs to prove the following:

  1. The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. The defendant breached the duty of care through negligence; and
  3. The defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the harm or death.5

3.2. What happens if I was injured as a passenger on a boat?

Commercial boating accidents may have a different standard than boating accidents involving recreational watercraft. When a passenger is injured in a boating accident, the passenger may have a claim against the boat company and owner.

Watercraft like ferries, harbor cruises, or “booze cruises,” may be considered “common carriers.” Common carriers are generally defined as businesses who transport people or goods for a fee. Common carriers are held to a higher standard for safety than others.

Under California law, “a carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.”6

If a captain of a passenger boat failed to use the utmost care or diligence and anyone was injured as a result, the boat company may be liable for any damages.

Accidents Caused by Boating Company Employees

A boat business or company may also be liable for any damage caused by an employee. Under “respondeat superior” laws, an employer may be responsible for the damages caused by an employee's negligence.7

A negligent employee may not have insurance or have enough money to pay for the damages caused by a boating accident. However, the employer is vicariously liable, and is more likely to be able to cover the expensive costs of a personal injury accident. For policy reasons, holding an employer vicariously liable may also help prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.8

If the boating company did not properly train or supervise the employee, the employer may also be directly liable for the accident through negligent hiring.10

Depending on the type of commercial boat or where the accident occurred, federal law and maritime law may apply in addition to or instead of state law. Talk to your lawyer about your boating accident and whether you have a claim for damages.

3.3. Can I sue the boat manufacturer for an accident caused by a defective part?

Some boating accidents are caused by defective boats, engines, or boating equipment. When a defective boat or boat part caused the accident, the injury victim can file a lawsuit to hold the manufacturer liable for any damages.

If a boat sinks or the steering equipment fails, the pilot and passengers can suffer serious injuries or drown. The injury victims may not be sure what caused the accident. It may take an investigation to figure out the cause of the accident and see if a defect or malfunction caused the accident.

Under products liability laws, anyone who designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product is strictly liable for any damages caused by the defective product. In a boating accident caused by a product defect could make the manufacturer, distributor, or product seller liable for damages.10

Product liability lawsuits involving boating equipment can involve:

Product liability claims have “strict liability,” which means the plaintiff does not need to show that any person or group was negligent. To recover damages in a product liability lawsuit, the plaintiff generally has to prove:

  1. The defendant manufactured, distributed, or sold the product;
  2. The product contained a manufacturing, design, or warning defect when it left the defendant's possession;
  3. The plaintiff suffered harm; and
  4. The product defect was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's harm.12
Example: Johnson bought a new motor for his fishing boat from Shoddy's Boats in Santa Clarita. Johnson was going to take his boat out to go fishing on Castaic Lake. Johnson did not know, but his motor had a defect that caused the gas line to spit gasoline.

Johnson revved up his motor for the first time and motored out to the middle of the lake. When he was ready to go back to shore, Johnson started the motor again. This time, the motor covered Johnson's shirt with gasoline and his cigarette lit the shirt on fire. Johnson suffered serious burns as a result of the accident.

Johnson may be able to file a lawsuit against the motor manufacturer and Shoddy's Boats. The owner of Shoddy's Boats may claim that they were unaware of the defect and they did nothing wrong. However, under California's strict liability laws, the seller may be liable if the product was defective when it left their possession.

4. Can the family file a lawsuit if a loved one drowns in a boating accident?

Boating accidents are a common cause of drowning deaths. A drowning victim is unable to seek justice for their own death. However, family members may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit in court. A wrongful death claim allows the family to get compensation for their loss and make sure the person responsible for the accident is held accountable.13

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the family can seek damages to compensate the family for their loss. These economic and noneconomic damages include:

  • Funeral expenses;
  • Burial expenses;
  • Loss of financial support the deceased would have provided; and
  • Loss of service, training, and affection.14

Under California law, the family members who can file a wrongful death claim include:

  • Spouse;
  • Domestic partner;
  • Children;
  • Grandchildren; or
  • Others who have a claim under California intestate succession laws.

5. Can you file a lawsuit if the boating accident victim was drunk?

Alcohol is a factor in a high number of boating accidents. This includes impaired boat operators, passengers, and others. In many cases, a drunk boat operator does something reckless which causes a drunk passenger to fall into the water, suffering a serious or fatal injury.

However, just because the victim was drinking does not mean they cannot file a lawsuit for damages. Under California's “comparative fault” laws, the plaintiff can be awarded damages even if they share some fault in the accident. The plaintiff's damages are reduced based on the plaintiff's share of the fault.15

Example: Bobby and his friends are going out on Jimmy's boat to celebrate college graduation. They have all been drinking beer for a couple of hours in the hot sun. They go back to the docks to get more beer.

Bobby tells everyone he is going to do a handstand on the edge of the boat. Bobby does a handstand on back of the boat and Jimmy thinks it would be funny if he guns the engine, causing Bobby to fall in the water. Jimmy guns the engine and Bobby falls back, hitting his head on the edge of the dock. Bobby suffers a serious injury and has to be taken to the hospital.

Bobby files a personal injury lawsuit against Jimmy for $20,000 in damages. A jury finds that Jimmy was 80% responsible for the accident by motoring away from the dock while Bobby was unbalanced. However, the jury finds Bobby was 20% responsible for doing the handstand on the edge of the boat.

If the jury awards Bobby damages, Bobby may receive a reduced award of $16,000 from Jimmy based on Bobby's 20% share in fault for the accident.
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Call us for help...

If you have any questions about boating accidents and drowning lawsuits or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

(For injuries sustained in Colorado or Nevada, please see our pages on boating accident laws in Colorado and Lake Mead boating accident lawsuits.)

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Legal References:

  1. Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 112. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a) (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”)
  2. California Harbors and Navigation Code (HNC) 655(a).
  3. Same.
  4. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 411 (“Every person has a right to expect that every other person will use reasonable care, unless he or she knows, or should know, that the other person will not use reasonable care.”)
  5. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 400.
  6. California Civil Code 2100. See also California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 902 -- Duty of Common Carrier (“Common carriers must carry passengers safely. Common carriers must use the highest care and the vigilance of a very cautious person. They must do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances to avoid harm to passengers.”)
  7. Perez v. Van Groningen & Sons, Inc. (1986) 41 Cal.3d 962, 967 (“Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for his employee's torts committed within the scope of the employment.”)
  8. Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles (1991) 54 Cal.3d 202. See also Bailey v. Filco, Inc. (1996) 48 Cal.App.4th 1552.
  9. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 426 -- Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention of Employee. See also Doe v. Capital Cities (1996) 50 Cal.App.4th 1038, 1054 (“California case law recognizes the theory that an employer can be liable to a third person for negligent hiring, supervising, or retaining an unfit employee.”)
  10. Soule v. GM Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, 560 (“A manufacturer, distributor, or retailer is liable in tort if a defect in the manufacture or design of its product causes injury while the product is being used in a reasonably foreseeable way.”)
  11. Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358.
  12. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) Series 1200 -- Products Liability.
  13. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)
  14. Vander Lind v. Superior Court (1983) 146 Cal.App.3d 358. See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921.
  15. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 405. See also California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 406. (“... you must then decide how much responsibility each has by assigning percentages of responsibility to each person listed on the verdict form. The percentages must total 100 percent.”).

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