Boat collisions happen every day in harbors, bays, rivers and other bodies of water all over the world. While determining who is to blame will be fairly obvious in some cases, in others, determining liability requires a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances involved and the rules of the water.

But, in all cases, holding an at-fault boater liable requires evidence of the cause of the accident. As a result, after an accident on the water, it is important to hire an experienced boat collision lawyer as soon as possible. Based on the evidence that is available, your boat collision lawyer will make a determination of liability, and then your lawyer will use the available evidence to seek just compensation on your behalf.

Determining Liability for a Boat Collision: The Rules of the Water

All boaters have a responsibility to follow the rules of the water. Unfortunately, many boaters are not familiar with these rules; and, as a result, violations of the rules frequently lead to collisions. Some of the primary rules that boaters must follow to avoid collisions include:

  • When Powerboats Approach Each Other Head-On – When two powerboats approach each other head-on, each captain must typically steer to starboard (to the right) in order to pass safely on the port side (the left).
  • When Powerboats Are On a Collision Course – When two powerboats are on a collision course but are not approaching each other head-on, then the boat to starboard (to the right) generally has the right of way. This is referred to as being the “stand-on” vessel, while the other vessel must “give way.”
  • When Sailboats Are on a Collision Course – When two sailboats are on a collision course, the first rule is that the boat on a starboard tack is the stand-on vessel. If both sailboats are on the same tack, then the boat to windward must give way.
  • When a Powerboat and Sailboat are On a Collision Course – When a powerboat and a sailboat are on a collision course, the sailboat is the stand-on vessel in most circumstances. However, there are some exceptions, such as when a sailboat is under power and when a sailboat is overtaking.
  • When One Boat is Overtaking Another – When one boat is overtaking another, the overtaking boat is the give-way vessel regardless of whether it is engine-powered or wind-powered.
  • Collisions Involving Boats Restricted in Their Ability to Maneuver – Generally, if a vessel is restricted in its ability to maneuver (referred to as a RAM vessel), then it is the stand-on vessel regardless of the angle of approach. RAM vessels include fishing boats with their nets out and large ships in narrow channels, among others.

With all of these rules in mind, it is important not to forget that even stand-on vessels have a duty to take evasive action (if possible) when a collision is imminent. Just because another boater is supposed to give way, this does not mean that the captain of a stand-on vessel can simply allow a collision to occur. Additionally, if the captain of a stand-on vessel makes a dangerous maneuver (i.e., attempting to cut off an overtaking boat), then the stand-on captain can be held fully liable in the event of a collision.

Additional Factors that Can Establish Liability for a Collision on the Water

Along with failing to follow the rules of the water, there are several additional factors that can establish liability for a collision between boats. Some examples of additional grounds for pursuing a claim following a boat collision include:

  • Failure to Maintain Proper Lookout – Under the “Lookout Rule,” also known as Rule 5, “every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions.” Failure to maintain proper lookout by sight, sound or other means can establish liability for a collision.
  • Distracted Boating – Texting, taking photos and videos, scrolling social media, and talking to passengers all take a boat captain’s mind (and potentially eyes and hands) off of the task at hand. Distracted boating significantly increases the risk of a collision and can justify a claim for liability.
  • Drunk Boating – Drunk boating can justify a claim for liability as well. Boating under the influence is illegal (and for good reason), and drunk boaters who cause collisions deserve to be held fully accountable.
  • Excessive Speed or Reckless Operation – Excessive speed, turning or tacking without looking, buzzing other boats, and other forms of reckless operation all significantly increase a boater’s risk of causing a collision as well. As a result, all of these mistakes can also give rise to claims for financial compensation.
  • Unfamiliarity with a Vessel – Even if a boat captain is unfamiliar with his or her vessel, this is not an excuse for causing a collision on the water. Boat captains should learn everything they need to know about their vessels before leaving the dock—whether they have just purchased a new boat or they are renting or chartering a boat for the day.
  • Boater Inexperience – Boater inexperience is a common factor in collisions as well; and while inexperience may explain a collision, it is not an excuse. When boaters hit the water, they take full responsibility for the safety of their passengers, crew and everyone around them.

Again, these are just examples. Boat collisions can result from many other factors as well, and many of these other factors can also give rise to liability. Regardless of the circumstances involved, if you have been injured in a boat collision and have any reason to suspect that someone else may be to blame, you should speak with a lawyer as soon as possible.

Speak with a Boat Collision Lawyer for Free

If you need to learn about your legal rights after an accident on the water, we encourage you to contact us for more information. To speak with an experienced boat collision lawyer for free, call 800-499-0551 or tell us how we can reach you online today.

Back to Blog

National and International All Ports of Call. Anywhere Offshore.Brais Law is here for you.

Contact Us
Contact us media
Accessibility: If you are vision-impaired or have some other impairment covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act or a similar law, and you wish to discuss potential accommodations related to using this website, please contact our Accessibility Manager at 800-499-0551.
Contact Us