What Happens If You’re in a Boat Accident?

What Happens If You’re in a Boat Accident?

If you own a boat, it’s something that comes with a lot of responsibility. Along with the expenses of things like storage and upkeep, you also have to make sure you’re mindful of any boating laws or regulations. Boating safety also has to be a top priority. 

Some of the most common types of boating and watercraft accidents include:

  • Jet ski accidents—while this isn’t technically a boat, jet ski accidents are prevalent and can be deadly. If your boat were to collide with a jet ski, that could be devastating. 
  • Pontoon boats—pontoon boats are popular, and they’re great for relaxing with friends and family. Pontoon boats can be safer than other types of watercraft because they aren’t designed for high speeds, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely without risks. More people actually die because of pontoon boat accidents every year than jet ski accidents. Sitting on the railing or dangling your feet over the sides are common scenarios that lead to injuries and drownings. Pontoons are often seen as party boats, and drunk passengers or intoxicated drivers are especially risky. 
  • Dock and marina accidents—there are often accidents before you ever leave the dock or when you’re pulling back in. 
  • Other specific types of boating accidents include run-over accidents when passengers fall overboard, propeller accidents, and slip-and-fall accidents while on board a boat. 

If you’re involved in a boat accident, what should you do and know?

Immediate Steps

The things that you should do immediately following an accident of any kind include:

  • Your first and top priority is to make sure everyone is safe. Before anything else happens, you need to check on your passengers and make sure you’re safe as well. If anyone has even minor injuries, contact the Coast Guard. While you’re waiting for help to arrive, you might see if you can provide first aid from your emergency kit. 
  • Depending on the laws where you’re boating, you may be required to stop your vessel immediately, get it out of any other vessel’s path, and do a headcount. You may also be required by law, if you’re the vessel operator, to help anyone who’s injured because of the accident. 
  • If someone fell overboard, you shouldn’t try and jump in after them unless it’s needed. Otherwise, try to throw something like a flotation device or rope at them. If you do have to jump in, you should only do so wearing a life jacket. 
  • Once you’ve checked on everyone on board your vessel, you should then see if anyone else needs help if another vessel was involved. 
  • Don’t leave the scene, especially if someone needs medical help. 

Reporting a Boat Accident

It’s always a good idea to report boat accidents to the Coast Guard. You may need your accident report from the Coast Guard later. 

You’re required under federal law to report any boat accident if someone is killed or hurt badly enough they need medical care beyond basic first aid. If there’s damage equaling or exceeding $2,000, you’re required to report the accident, and you also have to report it if a vessel is destroyed or it’s a complete loss. 

If someone disappears, you’re legally required to report the accident too. 

When you report a boat accident, it’s similar to a car accident in that you shouldn’t apologize or take any responsibility for it. There will be a determination of fault made by looking at all the facts, and you don’t want to infer anything about responsibility too early on. That can be problematic for your boat injury claim. 

When you file an accident report, the specific circumstances can vary depending on the state. Many states require that you submit an accident report to either the state agency regulating boats or the U.S. Coast Guard. Some states require you to submit a report to both. If there are personal injuries, you typically have to file a report within 48 hours or sooner. If there was only property damage, you usually have ten days to file a report. 

Accident Liability

If someone is hurt or there’s property damage, people are at fault in a boat accident if they acted negligently. Acting negligently means you didn’t conduct yourself in a way that another reasonable person would have given the circumstances. 

For example, reasonable boaters follow safety rules, and they act mindfully as far as their passengers and other boaters. 

You should never, as such, operate a boat while under the influence, you should keep your boat well-maintained, and you should follow signs and directions. 

Most liability in boat accidents is a civil discussion, meaning you could be financially responsible if you don’t behave reasonably. In certain situations, there can also be criminal liability if you cause a boat accident. 

Someone who is a boat accident victim can sue another boater for medical expenses, property damage and other losses that occur due to the accident. 

Insurance Claims

After a boat accident, you’ll need to report to your insurance carrier if you operate or own one of the involved vessels. Even if another boater was to blame, you still need to let your insurer know. If the other boater was careless or negligent and that led to your accident, you may be able to seek compensation for medical costs, pain and suffering and other damages. 

Insurance isn’t required for boat owners in all areas. 

If possible, get the contact and insurance information from other involved boat owners, or at least find out if they have insurance. 

If you’re in a boating accident and it’s someone else’s fault, you may need to speak to an attorney. 

The best thing you can do as a boat owner is always behaving in a responsible, diligent way to reduce your risk of ever being in an accident in the first place. For example, check the weather, examine your boat frequently, and follow all rules and guidelines at all times. 

About the author


Tom Bernes

Tom Bernes is the Editorial Director at The Next Hint Inc.

Prior to joining The Next Hint Inc, Tom had a hand in a number of online and print publications, including as chief copy editor and Government Technology Magazine as managing editor. He also did a stint in Sydney as group editor of RBI Australia's manufacturing group, which is when he also developed an affinity (a love, really) for cricket.

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