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Rick Shapiro
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Boating Injuries: Does Federal Maritime Law or State Law Apply?

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A tricky point that applies when a personal injury occurs on a boat (commercial or otherwise) is whether the closest state negligence law applies, or whether federal maritime law applies. The point can be critical on many evidence issues, as Virginia still holds that contributory negligence of an injured person totally bars recovery, whereas federal maritime law only considers the injured person’s contributory negligence as reduction of the victim’s damages. The Virginia Supreme Court considered this issue regarding contributory fault in the recent case Matthews v. Comm. of Va.

The case involved these basic facts:

“Just before dawn on December 2, 1993, plaintiff Brenda Matthews, drove her motor vehicle aboard the state-owned ferryboat Williamsburg while it was docked in the navigable waters of the James River at Jamestown. She boarded to take breakfast to her boyfriend, the ferryboat’s captain. As the ferryboat neared completion of the 2.2-mile, 17- minute trip across the James to the dock at Scotland in Surry County, Virginia the plaintiff was injured. She slipped and fell as she was walking across the boat’s deck returning to her vehicle from her visit with the captain. She alleged that she was a paying passenger aboard the defendant’s vessel and that she was injured as the result of the defendant’s employees’ negligence in failing “to keep the deck of the ferry safe for passengers to walk upon.”

In deciding that general maritime law applied to the injury lawsuit, the Court reasoned:

“The general activity that is the basis of the plaintiff’s
claim involves maintenance of the vessel’s deck and of the safety
gates on either end of the ferryboat. The plaintiff’s evidence
tended to show that the substance utilized to lubricate the
safety gates collected in puddles on the steel deck and that
vehicle tires tracked the lubricant across the deck causing the
hazard that injured her….The inquiry should be “whether a tortfeasor’s activity,
commercial or noncommercial, on navigable waters is so closely related to
activity traditionally subject to admiralty law that the reasons
for applying special admiralty rules would apply in the case at
hand.” Manifestly, failure to so maintain a vessel properly at the dock
or underway is likely to disrupt the commercial activity central
to the maritime purpose of a ferryboat, that is, transporting
paying passengers safely across navigable water to their
destination. Consequently, we hold that the trial court erred in
instructing the jury on contributory negligence and in refusing
to allow the case to proceed under the general maritime law of
negligence.”

In any case involving a personal injury on a yacht, boat, or ship there are also various federal laws and legal considerations that can apply besides those discussed above. Here are a few:

Maritime accidents involving negligence:

Vessel crews often work under hazardous conditions so that the vessel achieves the highest possible revenues. Sailors injured due to operating under dangerous or hazardous conditions, negligence of an employer, vessel operator or crew member, or due to the “unseaworthy” condition of the vessel have rights under the Jones Act. Injured sailors are generally entitled to recover wages, future earnings, medical expenses and damages for pain and suffering and other general damages. However, careful legal analysis must be made as to the time deadlines for filing such a claim, as well as whether state or federal workers compensation acts apply instead.

Jones Act & Death on the High Seas Act

The Jones Act, (Merchant Marine Act), allows injured sailors to recover damages from their employers for the negligence of the shipowner, the captain, or due to members of the crew. The law borrows provisions from the federal law applying to interstate railroad workers, and dictates that the provisions also apply to sailors. Employers must also usually provide injured sailors with transport home, wages while out, medical expenses, and in cases of negligence, potentially damages for pain and suffering. Also, if a death is a result of an employer’s negligence or an unseaworthy vessel the family or estate may file for compensation under the Death on the High Seas Act.

Recreational boating and PWC accidents

Recreational boating and PWC accidents are subject to many types of city, county and state laws. Motor vehicle rules are often applied to recreational boating and in the case of accidents or boating injuries, negligence and fault are determined in similar ways. Depending upon what body of water the injury occurs upon (navigable waterways, etc.) legal rights may differ considerably.

Needless to say, when serious injuries (or wrongful death) occur off-shore involving boats, ships, yachts, or PWC’s, you should immediately seek a qualified injury lawyer’s advice as a complicated web of overlapping local, state and federal laws may apply. Our law firm, Hajek, Shapiro, Cooper & Lewis, provides free initial legal consultation on these and any personal injury matters.