"I was just trying to be a nice guy."
You're out enjoying a leisurely cruise when you come across a bowrider that is clearly adrift. You slow down and circle back as the driver of the boat waves frantically. He points to his raised engine hatch, indicating engine failure. Knowing full well that under federal law you're bound to provide assistance, you idle over to give the stranded boater a tow. You attach the towline correctly to his bow eye, so as not to put undue strain on his deck cleats (one could pop out and become a deadly missile). You maintain a proper towing speed to keep both vessels under control. But on the way through a narrow channel you negotiate a tight turn incorrectly, swinging his boat out of the channel and onto an oyster bar. The bowrider suffers several scratches to its bottom, and the guy's wife, who was standing in the cockpit, hits her head on the windshield and requires stitches.
Now the owner of the distressed bowrider is suing for repairs and his wife's medical expenses. You counter that you should be protected from liability because you were helping a vessel in distress and should be covered under Good Samaritan laws.
The Law: According to our experts, boaters who think that the Good Samaritan approach will shield them from liability could be thinking wrong. "You won't find statutes," says Joan Wenner, a maritime lawyer from Orlando. "But there is case law in contributory negligence." In plain English: "People don't realize that if they try to help someone, they could be sued."
Different states have different rules, but even if your state has a Good Samaritan law on the books designed to indemnify people who come to the aid of others, it may not keep you out of trouble.
But wait, the federal rule says you are bound to help, so how can you be punished for doing so? Simple: If you mess up, you could open the books for civil action. "The general rule is that once you undertake a 'duty,' you have an obligation to carry out that duty properly," says Lennon. "Any negligence, real or perceived, in helping someone could create a civil liability for you for property damage or personal injury."
Adds Gerald McGill, a maritime attorney with the McGill Law Firm in Pensacola, "If you tow someone's boat over a sandbar, you may be liable."
Protect Yourself: By all means, help your fellow boater. It's your obligation. But don't get in over your head by performing a task that you and your boat aren't capable of. If the people on the stranded boat aren't in imminent danger, your best choice might be to stand by and wait with them until a professional tow company shows up.
"He panics, and I get sued?"
It's Memorial Day weekend and every boater with a pulse is out playing in the wet stuff. Too crowded with nut jobs for you. But your kids are dying to go tubing, so you load them onto the family deckboat and cruise to a local bay. It's packed, but you eke out a stretch of open water suitable for tubing. You're a conscientious parent, so you put your two kids in life jackets, your wife is assigned to spotter duty, and you also have a rearview mirror so you can monitor the action underway. You take the kids on a few loops and turn back into your wake to give them a thrill with a high bounce. Somehow, you don't notice the kayaker coming toward your wake. Your kids get thrown from the tube, so you quickly turn and spin to pick them up. In your turn, the unmanned tube nearly skims over the kayaker, causing him to flip and lose his expensive fishing gear. He wants you to pay for it.
The Law: "If you're perceived as creating an unsafe situation," says Wenner, "you could be liable." Remember, civil penalty operates on a lesser standard than criminal penalty, so even if you're not cited by a marine patrol officer, you could wind up with a litigation problem. You have a duty of care to judge sea conditions and prepare for the unexpected. Maritime Law and Practice states that, with regard to towing skiers (tubes apply here), "The boat operator must not drive the boat in such a way as to cause the water skis or other similar device to collide with any fixed objects.… An operator is not necessarily in violation of this statute, however, if the skier causes an accident."
Lennon adds that you have to be aware of the other vessels around you and act accordingly. "Failure to do so," he says, "is considered careless operation."
Protect Yourself: Watch out for the big two: reckless or careless operation. Reckless means you knowingly put others in danger. Careless means you did so out of ignorance, which is no excuse. You are always responsible for operating in a prudent manner.