We live in a society of laws. And with laws come a special subset of our species-lawyers. They need to eat, too. And they get to because any time something goes wrong, someone is always looking for someone else to blame. Hence, our community based on laws has become a society of litigation. This extends all the way out to the water, even when you're doing something as innocuous as enjoying your boat on a sunny summer weekend.
You may think that, because you believe you're obeying the letter of the law, you're immune to fallout from legal mishaps. But if you get involved in a situation at sea, even if it seems perfectly legal, there's probably a party on the other end willing to come after you, and a lawyer anxious to hang you out to dry.
This isn't meant to scare you off the water, because 99.9 percent of the time you'll be fine. But there could come a day where you think you're doing the right thing-and it turns out all wrong. A day where you may feel innocent, but you're still guilty.
We came up with four likely scenarios and asked lawyers from Florida for their opinions. Although every state has its own laws-all of which are superseded by federal laws for navigable waterways-we chose Florida because it has the most registered boats and because it's the only state with a bar that requires board certification on admiralty and maritime law. When it comes to law on the water, Florida lawyers are among the best.
Take a look at the following slices of everyday boating life, situations in which you might be wrong, even if you think you're right.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE…
"If he did it, why are they suing me?"
You take some friends out on a cruise and anchor in a quiet cove. One of your buddies decides he wants to do some exploring ashore. You and the other passengers are perfectly happy staying onboard, so you lower the dinghy, put gas in the kicker, and send him on his way. The guy is an experienced boater and even a kid could handle the 9' RIB. You go back to your lunch and all is well, until a few minutes later when you hear yelling.
You go on deck to see your friend coming back in the dinghy with another person. The two climb onboard and your buddy says that on the way to the beach he didn't see the tiny dive flag attached to a float and ran over a diver. The diver's arm is cut up, but all things considered, he's in good shape. You call the Coast Guard, who picks up the diver and takes him to the hospital, where he receives treatment for minor injuries. Your friend is worried, expecting legal troubles. But three weeks later you get the call from the diver's lawyer.
How could this be when it was your friend who did the damage?
The Law: "A key distinction between accidents occurring in state waters versus federal navigable waters is the personal liability of a vessel's owner," says Jhan Lennon, an attorney with the law firm Rutherford Mulhall in Boca Raton. In general, an owner is not liable (legally responsible) for an accident that occurs on a lake or other waters under state jurisdiction unless he is the operator or is onboard at the time. But in navigable waters where federal maritime law applies, an owner can be held liable for the operator's negligence.
Maritime Law and Practice, published by the Florida Bar, states that on navigable waterways, when it can be conclusively determined that a certain vessel caused an accident but not who the driver was, authorities will often refer the matter to the Coast Guard, which may levy sanctions against the offending vessel without regard to the identity of the operator. This is also the case in noncontact accidents where the wake of a passing vessel damages a moored boat or causes a someone to fall overboard or fall within the boat (see "Wake Woes").
Protect Yourself: Better make sure your friend is responsible, sober, and knows how to drive a boat as well as, or better than, you do. It's not a bad idea to make sure your boat is covered under an umbrella liability insurance policy, so you have protection no matter who is behind the wheel.