Recreational Boating and the Law

May 15, 2013

By Colin McRae, HunterMaclean

Special to Business in Savannah

With so many miles of scenic coastline, rivers and creeks, Savannah and the surrounding Lowcountry are a recreational boater’s paradise.

However, when things go wrong on the water, the law can be quite different than it is on land. Boaters can be involved in collisions, accidentally hit a dock or experience product liability issues at sea, making a recreational vessel owner potentially subject to defending or bringing a maritime lawsuit. Federal admiralty law will generally apply and involves complex issues that may significantly differ from the state law in Georgia.

Quite often, maritime law is associated with container ships, tugboats and commercial vessels. However, a Boston Whaler or a recreational sailboat can be subject to the same admiralty law as an ocean-going freighter. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that if a recreational vessel is involved in an accident on navigable waters – and that accident has the potential to disrupt maritime commerce — admiralty jurisdiction applies.

In the eyes of the law, a vessel isn’t just the equivalent of a floating car. Recreational craft are, in fact, subject to very different laws than automobiles, trucks or motor carriers.

First, the limitation of liability differs for recreational boaters. The Limitation of Vessel Owner’s Liability Act, a federal law that may apply to certain recreational boating disputes, allows the owner of a vessel to his limit liability, under certain circumstances, to the actual value of the vessel or to the owner’s interest in the vessel. Defendants can attempt to limit or avoid liability by seeking protection under this important statute.

Under this law, vessel owners may limit liability to the post-casualty value of the vessel if the negligence or unseaworthy condition resulting in injury or death occurred without the owner’s participation or knowledge. According to the Limitation of Vessel Owner’s Liability Act, a boat owner seeking to limit liability has six months from receiving notice of a claim to file a complaint for limitation.

In addition to differing limitation of liability rules, the apportionment of fault between parties differs in maritime law cases. Under Georgia law, if the plaintiff is determined to be 50 percent or more at fault, that party is not entitled to recover. In an automobile accident, for example, the victim must be less than 50 percent responsible for the accident in order to recover damages.

However, the concept of comparative negligence serves as a cornerstone of maritime law. This means an individual is liable only to the extent of his or her actual fault, as opposed to contributory negligence, under which fault on the part of the wrongdoer can negate the entire claim. In maritime law, negligence is apportioned in accordance with the percentage of fault assigned to each party. In other words, if a plaintiff is found to be 80 percent at fault, the plaintiff may still recover 20 percent of his damages.

A maritime attorney can help recreational boat owners navigate the complex process of an admiralty lawsuit, either as a plaintiff or as a defendant. Be sure to consult an experienced maritime practitioner for help with admiralty-related legal issues.

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