Liability of Motorboat Owners and Operators for Injury or Damage

The party who has been wronged by a vessel has his right of action against the vessel in rem, or against the vessel and its owner in personam[i].  With respect to the application of these principles, no distinction is made between large and small vessels, so that in determining the liability of an owner or operator of a motorboat for personal injury or property damage, motorboats are governed by the same rules and standards as larger or different craft.

There is no legal distinction with respect to the rules of navigation between vessels operated for pleasure and for profit, between large boats and small ones, or those with a crew and those operated by one person[ii]. 

When there is no separate legislation regulating the operation of leisure craft upon public streams, the fundamental common law tort principles are applicable[iii].  At common law, the owner of a vessel is liable for injuries caused for any tort, whereas under maritime law, the vessel as well as the owner is responsible. The overwhelming majority of courts hold that common law claims fall within the scope of laws and regulations expressly preempted by the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971[iv]. 

Persons in charge of ships or vessels must be careful to avoid injury to others.  The standard of ordinary care is statutorily applied to boats and the operation of boats[v].  The captain should observe reasonable care and prudence, not only against present dangers, but against impending perils[vi].  He/she must take reasonable measures of precaution.

The owner of an excursion motorboat has been held to be governed by the duty of highest degree of care that a common carrier has a to exercise and is liable for any slight negligence[vii].  However, a boat owner as a gratuitous bailor owes merely a duty of ordinary care toward a third person who was injured aboard the boat while it was being used by the bailee[viii].

A vessel owner’s liability may be predicated on his negligence in entrusting his vessel to an incompetent operator[ix].  The Limited Liability Act limits the liability of an owner of a vessel to the value of the vessel and its freight for any damage done without the privity or knowledge of such owner[x].

Motor boats or other watercraft operated on inland waters or the waters connected with the Great Lakes should not be operated on any of said waters in a reckless manner or at an excessive rate of speed so as to endanger the life or property of any person in or on said waters[xi].  Further, a person should operate a motor boat at a rate of speed less than that which will permit him to bring it to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead.

An operator of a boat owes a duty of reasonable care to a passenger[xii.  One who operates a boat in waters frequented by bathers or other boats is obligated to maintain such a lookout as a reasonably prudent person would exercise to discover and avoid injury to others lawfully using the water[xiii].   The duty rests on the driver in the operation of his motorboat to exercise reasonable care for the safety of his guests and to avoid exposing them unreasonably to danger.  If the driver fails to observe that duty for the safety of a passenger he is guilty of negligence[xiv]. 

Principles of proximate cause are applied in cases involving the liability of a motorboat owner or operator for injuries or damages[xv].  Foreseeability is not a test of proximate cause[xvi].  In Dellwo v. Pearson, 259 Minn. 452 (Minn. 1961), the court held that negligence is tested by foresight but proximate cause is determined by hindsight.

The admissibility of evidence in a personal injury, death, or property damage action against a motorboat owner or operator is governed by the general rules followed in other negligence actions.  Whether negligence was the cause of a collision between vessels is a question of fact.  However, if evidence is such that only a single conclusion may be reached, the court can declare such conclusion as a matter of law[xvii].  

The party seeking to invoke maritime jurisdiction must show a substantial relationship between the activity giving rise to the incident and traditional maritime activity[xviii].  When it extended admiralty jurisdiction to injuries on land caused by ships on navigable waters, Congress directed that the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the U.S. extends to and include all cases of damage or injury caused by a vessel on navigable water[xix] Jurisdiction is lacking when the wrong does not bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity[xx].

For admiralty jurisdiction to exist in federal court, the alleged wrong must[xxi]:

  • occur on or over navigable waters, and
  • bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.

These two requirements are known respectively as the situs and the nexus requirements.

The test for deciding whether an activity is substantially related to traditional maritime activity has four factors[xxii]:

  • the functions and roles of the parties;
  • the types of vehicles and instrumentalities involved;
  • the causation and the type of injury; and
  • traditional concepts of the role of admiralty law.

Not every accident in navigable waters that might disrupt maritime commerce will support federal admiralty jurisdiction. However, when a potential hazard to maritime commerce arises out of activity that bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity, like navigation of boats, admiralty jurisdiction is appropriate[xxiii].

[i] Nelson v. Allis, 181 Misc. 310 (N.Y. City Ct. 1943)

[ii] The O’Brien Bros., 258 F. 614 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1919)

[iii] Nugen v. Hildebrand, 145 W. Va. 420, 425-426 (W. Va. 1960)

[iv] Lewis v. Brunswick Corp., 107 F.3d 1494 (11th Cir. Ga. 1997)

[v] Clipp v. Weaver, 451 N.E.2d 1092 (Ind. 1983)

[vi] The Adventuress, 214 F. 834, 838 (D. Mass. 1914)

[vii] Loc-Wood Boat & Motors, Inc. v. Rockwell, 245 F.2d 306 (8th Cir. Mo. 1957)

[viii] Hogan v. Hellman, 7 F.2d 949 (D. Cal. 1925)

[ix] Boland v. Suncoast Rent-A-Scooter, Inc., 439 So. 2d 916 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2d Dist. 1983)

[x] Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (U.S. 1990)

[xi] Torrez v. Willett, 366 Mich. 465 (Mich. 1962)

[xii] Clipp v. Weaver, 451 N.E.2d 1092 (Ind. 1983)

[xiii] Williams v. McSwain, 248 N.C. 13 (N.C. 1958)

[xiv] Estate of White v. Beauchamp, 348 Mich. 159 (Mich. 1957)

[xv] Id

[xvi] Dellwo v. Pearson, 259 Minn. 452 (Minn. 1961)

[xvii] Gilreath v. Silverman, 245 N.C. 51 (N.C. 1956)

[xviii] Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (U.S. 1990)

[xix] Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668 (U.S. 1982)

[xx] Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (U.S. 1990)

[xxi] Smith v. Knowles, 642 F. Supp. 1137 (D. Md. 1986)

[xxii] Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (U.S. 1990)

[xxiii] Id


Inside Liability of Motorboat Owners and Operators for Injury or Damage