Legal Options for Boat Accident Victims

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In 2019, a combination of crashes, falls, and “man overboard” drownings seriously injured thousands of people. Missouri has very few licensing or safety requirements for boaters. Almost anyone can operate one of these motor vehicles. It’s difficult to control boats, especially if the water is not completely calm. It’s even more difficult for boaters to operate the watercraft and watch passengers at the same time.

Even if the victim drowned while wearing a life preserver, a St. Louis personal injury attorney can usually obtain substantial compensation for boating accident victims. This compensation normally includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Liability Theories

A few boat accident claims involve the negligence per se rule. But most of them involved the ordinary negligence doctrine.

Alcohol-related boat crashes, which are rather common on area lakes, especially on major summer holidays, usually involve the DUI law. It’s illegal to operate any motor vehicle, including a boat, while intoxicated. If authorities press DUI charges, the tortfeasor (negligent operator) could be liable for the aforementioned damages as a matter of law. The negligence per se rule usually applies if:

  • The tortfeasor violated a safety law, and 
  • That violation substantially caused injury.

This doctrine usually applies even if the tortfeasor “beats” the DUI charges in criminal court. In a civil case, the civil jury determines all the relevant facts.

Anything other than an alcohol-related crash usually involved the ordinary negligence doctrine. In these cases, victim/plaintiffs must prove negligence, or a lack of care, by a preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not.

Most boaters have a duty of reasonable care. This duty comes from Donoghue v. Stevenson, a case which introduced the neighbor principle. “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour,” the court wrote. In this context, the duty of reasonable care means ensuring passenger safety, obeying the rules of the sea, and avoiding accidents when possible.

Evidence in ordinary negligence claims usually includes the victim’s testimony, witness statements, medical bills, and the police accident report. SInce the burden of evidence is so low, a little proof goes a long way.

Possible Defenses

Non-life preserver drowning cases are an example of contributory negligence, which is perhaps the most common insurance company defense in accident claims.

This doctrine shifts accident blame from the tortfeasor to the victim. So, in this situation, the insurance company would argue that the victim’s failure to wear a life vest, as opposed to the tortfeasor’s negligence, substantially caused the victim’s injuries.

This argument does not always hold up in court. For example, many bodies of water contain riptides and undercurrents. These hidden dangers can suck people under the water, even if they are good swimmers or wearing life preservers. Furthermore, many victims do not know how to properly use life vests, or the device is defective in some way.

Other defenses, which often come up in collision cases, include last clear chance and sudden emergency.

Boat accident victims are usually entitled to significant compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in St. Louis, contact Schultz & Myers, Personal Injury Lawyers. Virtual, home, and hospital visits are available. 

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