Berlin, Berlin/Germany - 07.23.2018: A sailboat, which is capsized and raised again with the help of the water guard.


Negligently operating a pleasure boat…even one under the influence of alcohol…was not a crime up to thirty years ago. Federal law did not apply to the accident or negligence, depending on where it occurred. California does not consider driving a vessel while under the influence of alcohol a crime. The number of vessels used increased, and the types of vessels made available to the public expanded to include fast-moving maneuverable craft like jet skis or windsurfers. Eventually, various government agencies passed more stringent laws regarding vessels and their operation.

There are still far fewer restrictions in the United States than in any other country on the operation and use of pleasure boats. For profit or pleasure, every operator of any European boat or vessel must have a license. The United States does not require any license to operate a vessel unless it is used for a fee.

One European friend said to the writer that it was amazing. We have to complete months of training and pass a test in Sweden. You buy the boat, pay for the registration and turn the key. Then you can travel wherever you like with anyone you wish.

Notice that compensation for using a vessel is not considered a contribution towards operating expenses. The United States Coast Guard must license the captain and vessel. These licenses are subject to a series background checks and tests.

Most pleasure boat owners feel that operating on the seas is safer than driving on land. While torts laws at land differ from those at sea, there are many forums for resolving disputes. However, it is wrong to assume that road rules do not impose any significant liability for the failure to operate the vehicle safely.

This article will outline the most important law for accidents involving vessels within United States waters. This article does not address the laws applicable to commercial vessels.

Basic Definitions of Vessels and their Status:

Boats can be pleasure craft of all types and sizes, motorboats like speedboats and runabouts, boat cruisers and outboards, speedboats, sailboats and sailing yachts (with or with auxiliary engines), rowboats and jet skies, and canoes.

Navigation for recreational and commercial purposes and navigation for pleasure are equally important in law. Both small craft and large steamers are entitled to navigable waters. Each party owes another the duty to exercise due care to avoid injury. Injuries resulting from violations of this duty, regardless of intent or negligence, carry the legal responsibility for covering any damages.

The rules of navigation do not distinguish between pleasure vessels and profit vessels, large and small boats, crewed or unmanned, and even though a small boat may be a pleasure craft, it does not give the operator the right to place all of the responsibility of avoiding collisions on a larger vessel.

In determining fault in a collision, however, the relative size and maneuverability to boats may be considered. Large, powerful, and fast vessels are required to avoid traveling on navigable waters at speeds that cause displacement waves, suction, or injury to other craft. Operators of larger vessels are responsible for avoiding such risks by stopping normal operation until the smaller vessel has left the danger zone.

What laws apply?

Federal statutes govern pleasure crafts. These laws apply to both public and private vessels in the United States. Special statutes are passed to regulate motor boats to promote safety and enjoyment in recreational boating. There are many state statutes which govern pleasure craft in the navigable waters. State or local laws do not affect federal rules regarding the same subject. Federal law is preemptive to state law.

Boats are exempted from search and seizure restrictions:

Federal law allows customs officers to board any vessel at any location in the United States, or within customs waters, to inspect the manifest and other papers. Officers can search and stop any vessel. They may also use force to enforce compliance. The Treasury Department officers are legally authorized to stop, hail, board, or board any vessel to enforce navigation laws. They can also arrest anyone who violates such laws. The Fourth Amendment Rights to require a warrant before search and seizure do not apply to most vehicles, except boats, in most States. The Coast Guard can stop and search any vessel to inspect safety or for other reasons. They often arrive armed.

The Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing federal navigation and boating laws under federal jurisdiction in high seas and waters. The Coast Guard can conduct inquiries, examinations and inspections, search, seize, and arrest. Different agencies and officials can enforce local and state boating laws through local ordinances and statutes.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary, a nonmilitary group made up of motorboat and yacht owners as well as other qualified individuals, is an organization that provides non-military services. The Auxiliary provides safety checks, harbor patrols and safe boating courses. Search and rescue and marine environmental protection are just a few of its many benefits. The Auxiliary’s purpose is to support the Coast Guard, as authorized by Commandant, in carrying out any Coast Guard function power, duty, role or mission. Any member of the Auxiliary may place any motorboat, boat, aircraft or radio station at its disposal for any purpose related to its functions and duties.

Federal Law:

Several federal statutes govern pleasure craft based on their size, type and location of navigation. These statutes apply to all US public and private vessels. The Inland Navigation Rules (33.3 USCS SS 2001) provide navigation rules for rivers, harbors, and inland waterways. These Rules apply to all vessels on the inland waters in the United States and vessels from the United States located on the Canadian waters around the Great Lakes.

Special statutes also regulate’ motorboats’ and their numbering by either the Coast Guard or states. This promotes safety and uniform regulation between the federal government and the states. 46 USCS SS4302 gives the Secretary of the Coast Guard authority to establish minimum safety standards for recreational boats. Violations of the Inland Navigational Rules are subject to severe penalties.

State Law:

Local authorities and states can create rules and regulations to ensure the safety and convenience for vessels at local ports and channels. These rules and regulations cannot be inconsistent with federal laws on the same subject. These regulations and rules apply to all vessels, domestic and foreign.

State statutes and safety regulations govern pleasure craft on navigable waters. These laws govern equipment requirements, licensing, numbering, and other matters. The statutes also include penalties for boat owners and operators who violate statutory provisions.

Many states also have counties and municipalities that have passed laws or ordinances to regulate pleasure craft operation or vessels on waters within their political subdivisions. These local laws cannot be incompatible with state statutes. If they are not within the authority granted to the municipality, the local laws will be unconstitutional or unenforceable.

Safety Programmes:

The State Recreational Boating Safety Program is a program that provides education, assistance and enforcement activities to prevent and reduce maritime casualties. The federal Secretary of Transportation manages a national recreational boating safety program. This program has two purposes: to increase participation and uniformity in state efforts to improve boating safety and to allow states to take on a larger share of education, assistance and enforcement activities related to boating safety. The Secretary establishes the program’s standards and guidelines. The Secretary will consider factors that affect recreational boating safety, such as overcrowding or congestion of waterways due to the increasing number and distribution of recreational boats on those watersways, availability and distribution of recreational boating facilities within and among States, and State marine casualty statistics for recreational vessels. To minimize duplication of effort to implement the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1995 (16 U.S.C. 460l-4-460l-11), and the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 50 (16 U.S.C. 777k to 777k) and the guidelines created under those Acts. The Secretary shall ensure that environmental standards are maintained in accordance with the Coastal Zone Management Act of 2002 (16 U.S.C. 1451-1464) or other laws and policies of America that are intended to preserve the ecological and aesthetic qualities of the water and wetlands in the United States. The Secretary approves a state’s recreational boating safety program. This allows the Secretary to provide funds for that state’s development, implementation, and financing.

Vessel Operation

Inland Rules

Natural bodies of water can be classified as navigable or not-navigable. State v. Korrer, 127 Minn. 60 (Minn. 1914). All bodies of water that are public in nature include navigable waters. Common law divides all waters into public and private waters. The sovereign holds the title to the water, while the ownership of the private waters is held by the individual proprietor. The sovereign’s title is held in trust for public benefit.

The public has the supreme right to navigate water and boating. Witke v. State Conservation Com., 244 Iowa 261 (Iowa 1953). Boating for pleasure and boating for profit are both considered navigation. In the eyes of the law, navigability is just as important as navigation for other purposes. State v. Korrer, 127 Minn. 60 (Minn. 1914). All streams that are actually navigable fall under the umbrella of “navigable”. State ex rel. Meek v. Hays, 246 Kan. 99 (Kan. 1990). In such cases, the title to a riparian land owner is restricted to the bank of the stream.

When determining whether certain bodies of water can be considered navigable, the criteria that will be applied to vesting the state title to the water bed are:

  • The bodies of water were or could be used as highways for commerce.
  • Under the natural conditions of the water body, such commerce was possible.
  • Commerce was or could have taken place in the usual modes of trade and travel on the water; all these conditions were met at the time of the state’s creation. State ex rel. Meek v. Hays, 246 Kan. 99 (Kan. 1990).

Liability to Operate a Vessel

A boat operator who uses waters that are frequented regularly by other boats is required to keep such a watch as a prudent person would to avoid injury to those lawfully using the waters. Willams, 248 N.C. 13, (N.C.58). The operator is responsible for knowing what a lookout would reveal. The responsibility of the boat’s operator to keep a lookout for objects above or below the surface of navigable water is not theirs.

Every person has the right to use navigable waters in a state, provided they don’t interfere with other citizens. The right to use navigable water is subject to regulation by the state, which has police power.

A party that has been wronged in any way by a vessel can bring an action against it in rem or against its owner in personam. Nelson, 181 Misc. 310 (N.Y. City Ct. 433) These principles are applied equally to small and large vessels. Motorboats can be held liable for personal injury and property damage if they are operated or owned by an operator.

The fundamental common law tort principles apply when there is no separate legislation that regulates the operation of leisure craft on public streams. Nugen v. Hildebrand, 145 W. Va. 420, 425-426 (W. Va. 1960). Common law holds the vessel owner liable for any tort, whereas maritime law renders the vessel and its owner responsible. A majority of courts agree that common law claims are covered by laws and regulations explicitly preempted under the Federal Boat Safety Act.

The person in charge of vessels or ships must take care to not cause injury to others. Boats and their operation are subject to the standard of ordinary care. Clipp v. Weaver, 451 N.E.2d 1092 (Ind. 1983. Captains should exercise reasonable care and prudence not only in the face of immediate dangers but also for future perils. The Adventuress, 234 F. 834, 838.

An excursion motorboat owner (thus available for hire) is deemed to be subject to the highest level of care that a common carrier can exercise, and is liable for any negligence. Loc-Wood Boat & Motors, Inc. v. Rockwell, 245 F.2d 306 (8th Cir. Mo. 1957). A boat owner acting as a gratuitous bailor (not to be hired) is obligated to ordinary care for any third party who was hurt aboard the boat during its use by the bailee. Hogan, 7 F.2d 959. (D. Cal. 1925). You should note that any consideration received by the boat owner can affect the amount of duty. See our article about contracts.

The negligence of a vessel owner in leaving his vessel to incompetent operators could lead to a vessel owner being liable. Boland, Inc., 439 S. 2d 916 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2d Dist. 1983). The Limited Liability Act limits an owner’s liability to the vessel’s value and freight for damage done by another personSisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (U.S. 1990)

Motor boats and other watercraft that are used on inland waters or waters connected to the Great Lakes shouldn’t be operated in reckless ways or at excessive speed. This could endanger any person or property in those waters. Torrez v. Willett, 366 Mich. 465 (Mich. 1962). A person must not operate a motorboat at a speed that is less than what will allow him to stop it within an assured clear distance.

A passenger is owed reasonable care by an operator of a boat. Clipp v. Weaver, 451 N.E.2d 1092 (Ind. 1983). A boat operator who uses waters that are frequented by other boats or bathers is required to keep such a watch as a reasonable prudent person would to avoid injury to those lawfully using the water. Williams, 248 N.C. 13, (N.C.58). In operating his motorboat, the driver has the responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of his passengers. Negligence is when a driver fails to uphold this duty for safety of passengers. Estate of White, 348 Mich.159 (Mich. 1956).

In cases where a motorboat operator or owner is liable for damages or injuries, the principles of proximate causes are applied. Intesting proximate cause by foreseeability is not possible. Dellwo v. Pearson, 259 Minn. 452 (Minn. 1961). In Dellwo, 259 Minnesota. 452 (Minn.611) the court ruled that negligence can be tested using foresight, but that proximate causes are determined by hindsight. If your vessel collides and causes another vessel to smash into the dock, causing someone on the dock to fall, and then injure themselves, you can be held liable if your negligence caused that collision.

The general rules of evidence that apply to other negligence actions govern the admissibility and admissibility evidence in personal injury, death or property damage cases against motorboat owners or operators. It is a matter of fact whether negligence caused a collision between two vessels.

Maritime Jurisdiction:

In order to invoke maritime jurisdiction in federal courts, the party must prove a significant relationship between the incident and traditional maritime activities. Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (U.S. 1990). Congress extended admiralty jurisdiction to land injuries caused by ships in navigable waters. This decision meant that both the maritime and admiralty jurisdictions of the United States were to be extended to all damage or injury caused to a vessel by navigable water. When the wrong is not in a significant relation to traditional maritime activities, jurisdiction is lacking.

Federal court must have admiralty jurisdiction in order for federal court to recognize it.

  • Observed on or above navigable waters
  • They have a strong relationship with traditional maritime activity.

These requirements are also known as the situs or the nexus requirements. Smith, 642 F. Supp. 1137 (D. Md. 1986).

There are four factors that can be used to determine if an activity is significantly related to traditional maritime activities:

  • The functions and roles of each party
  • The types of vehicles and instruments involved
  • The causation and type of injury;
  • Traditional concepts of the importance of admiralty laws.

Federal admiralty jurisdiction is not appropriate for every incident in navigable waters that could disrupt maritime commerce. Admiralty jurisdiction is appropriate when there is a risk to maritime commerce from activity that has a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities, such as the navigation of boats. See Sisson case.


Boat owners carry liability insurance just like automobile drivers. However, unless a financing company is involved in the transaction, it is not required by law. Vessel insurance can be very worthwhile as the liability for the negligent operator can be much greater than the liability that would face the average person involved in an automobile accident. Two boats colliding with five or more people in each boat can cause death or serious injury to ten people. This is often true for children. Anybody who has ever visited a bay or lake during a holiday will know that boat owners often ignore basic rules and are in a celebratory mood, and are prone to drinking to excess.

Because fishermen tend to fish where the fish are supposed, regardless of weather conditions and proximity to dangerous shorelines, they are more at risk for accidents. Humans are often more inclined to take risks when they want to have fun than when they work to make a living. A professional fisherman told the writer that he often sees amateurs taking risks at sea on weekends that he wouldn’t take on his much more seaworthy vessel.


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