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An Introduction To Boating Accidents And Negligent Watercraft Operation Litigation

Boating accidents are quite common in the State of Florida. Injuries on boats are quite common and people are injured as a result of water skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and other kinds of water sports recreation activities. In the last several years, nearly 1,000,000 boats were registered each year in the state of Florida alone. These vessels and other water crafts had free access to Florida's waterways. While the number of boating fatalities has been decreasing over recent years, hundreds of people still die in recreational boating accidents. In the year 2000, there were nearly 11,000 vessels involved in 7,740 recreational boating accidents. These resulted in 791 fatalities and 4,355 injuries. Not all boating accidents are even reported. It is estimated that only five to ten percent of non-fatal accidents are on record at all.

In a boating accident which resulted in the amputation of minor plaintiff's leg, our firm obtained a substantial settlement for the negligent supervision of boating activities. In a wrongful death case, this firm obtained a significant award for burns resulting from the explosion of ammonium nitrate, fertilizer and gasoline aboard the defendant's vessel. While the cargo was being off-loaded, an on-board spark from the portable gas pump ignited the cargo resulting in severe burns to the plaintiffs. Discovery established the vessel was unseaworthy and the crew inadequately trained.

Most recently, our firm settled a boating accident case which resulted in the untimely death of a 20-year-old passenger for $1,325,000. The confidential settlement involved multiple defendants in this tragic case where our client was a passenger in a speedboat that crashed into a dock on a lake in the middle of the night. The evidence showed that the operator of the boat had been drinking and was impaired when he took several passengers for a ride on his speedboat. Other cases of negligent supervision and operation of boats and marine activities include a $1,600,000 boating award in Key West.

In another recent case which occurred in the Florida Keys, our law firm successfully reached a substantial settlement for an injured boat passenger. The accident occurred at night when each operator did not see the other boat's navigational lights causing the boats to collide.

Leesfield & Partners has also been successful against cruise line companies. A settlement was reached in the wrongful death case of our client where plaintiff drowned during a scuba diving expedition. In another cruise ship case, our firm secured a very substantial settlement where elderly plaintiff sustained a hip fracture caused by the malfunction of an automatic sliding door aboard the ship. More recently, our firm obtained an significant award when a passenger slipped and fell on a wet surface and fractured his hip. For a complete list of the firm's representative results, go to our Verdicts and Settlements section.

Recreational vehicles require extreme awareness of one’s surroundings and the natural elements. In another recreational vehicle case resulting in the wrongful death of a 15-year old girl, our attorneys reached a $4,500,000 settlement for the negligent entrustment of a recreational vehicle to a minor and the failure of the responsible parent to supervise the children.

While less than ten percent of boating accidents result in fatalities, more than half of those occur because of capsizing and falls overboard, with 90% of those victims drowning. Of those who did drown, 86% were not wearing a life jacket. Types of recreational boating accidents may include, capsizing, falling overboard, collisions with another vessel or structure, fire, sinking, flooding, explosions, disappearance of a vessel or passenger.

There are numerous causes of boating accidents. Statistics show that the majority of these accidents are caused by operator inexperience or inattention. 84% of all boating fatalities that occur on boats happen where operators have not completed a boating safety education course. Other reasons for boating accidents include lack of experience for boat operators, recklessness/careless boat operation, operator inattention, operating at an unsafe speeds, no proper lookout, and overcrowding.

Another serious cause of boating accidents is the consumption of alcohol while operating a boat. This accounts for nearly one-third of all recreational boating fatalities, and is, in fact, the number one cause of boating accident deaths. Because the effects of alcohol are magnified while on the water, intoxicated boaters are more than ten times as likely to be killed in a boating accident because of diminished coordination, dehydration, susceptibility to hypothermia, and impaired judgment. Just like driving a car, it is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol, narcotics, or barbiturates, so the penalties are stiff, and could include fines, prison time, community service, mandatory substance abuse counseling, and more.

When operating a recreational vessel, steps can be taken to prevent a boating accident or to minimize the damage if an accident occurs. Always wear life jackets and dress for possible immersion; Be aware that cold weather is more dangerous: there are fewer boaters and patrols to rescue those in distress, and the water is much colder; Do not drink alcohol while on the water; When in larger bodies of water, take advantage of available distress-alerting and position-indicating technologies.

To contact one of our experienced trial lawyers call our Miami law office today at 800-836-6400 or click here for a free and full case evaluation.


Operating under the Influence:

It is a violation of Florida law to operate a vessel while impaired by alcohol or other drugs. A vessel operator suspected of boating under the influence must submit to sobriety tests and a physical or chemical test to determine blood or breath alcohol content.

In Florida, a vessel operator is presumed to be under the influence if their blood or breath alcohol level is at or above .08.

Any person under 21 years of age who is found to have a breath alcohol level of .02 or higher and operates or is in actual physical control of a vessel is in violation of Florida law.

Personal Floatation Device

  • A child under the age of six (6) must wear a U.S.C.G. approved Type I, II, or III personal flotation device while onboard a vessel under 26 feet in length while the vessel is underway. "Underway" is defined as anytime except when the vessel is anchored, moored, made fast to the shore, or aground.
  • Children under 6 must wear a PFD while underway in boats under 26ft!
  • The owner and/or operator of a vessel is responsible to carry, store, maintain, and use the safety equipment required by the U.S.C.G. safety equipment requirements.
  • The use of sirens or flashing, occulting, or revolving lights is prohibited except where expressly allowed by law.

Reckless & Negligent Operation:

Anyone who operates a vessel with willful disregard for the safety of persons or property will be cited for reckless operation (a first-degree misdemeanor).

All operators are responsible for operating their vessel in a reasonable and prudent manner with regard for other vessel traffic, posted restrictions, the presence of a divers-down flag, and other circumstances so as not to endanger people or property. Failure to do so is considered careless operation (a non-criminal infraction).

Personal Watercraft Regulations

  • Each person operating, riding on, or being towed behind a personal watercraft must wear an approved non-inflatable Type I, II, III, or V personal flotation device. Inflatable personal flotation devices are prohibited.
  • The operator of a personal watercraft must attach the engine cutoff switch lanyard (if equipped by the manufacturer) to his/her person, clothing, or PFD.
  • Personal watercraft may not be operated from ½ hour after sunset to ½ hour before sunrise.
  • Maneuvering a personal watercraft by weaving through congested vessel traffic, jumping the wake of another vessel unreasonably close or when visibility around the vessel is obstructed, or swerving at the last possible moment to avoid collision is classified as reckless operation of a vessel (a first-degree misdemeanor).
  • A person must be at least 14 years of age to operate a personal watercraft in this state.
  • A person must be at least 18 years of age to rent a personal watercraft in this state.
  • It is unlawful for a person to knowingly allow a person under 14 years of age to operate a personal watercraft (a second-degree misdemeanor).
  • No person may operate a monohull boat of less than 20 feet in length while exceeding the maximum weight, persons, or horsepower capacity as displayed on the manufacturer's capacity plate.
  • Any vessel operating in a speed zone posted as “Idle Speed - No Wake” must operate at the minimum speed that will maintain steerageway.
  • Any vessel operating in a speed zone posted as “Slow Down - Minimum Wake” must operate fully off plane and completely settled in water. The vessel’s wake must not be excessive nor create a hazard to other vessels.

Special Activities Restrictions and Considerations:

Florida regulates certain water sports activities such as waterskiing, diving and hunting from a vessel as well as environmental issues specific to the region. For your safety, and for those who may be in the water, you should learn and abide by these special laws.

Water Ski

  • The operator of a vessel towing someone on skis or another aquaplaning device must either have an observer, in addition to the operator, on board who is attendant to the actions of the skier or have and use a wide-angle rear view mirror.
  • No one may ski or aquaplane between the hours of ½ hour past sunset to a ½ hour before sunrise.
  • No one may water ski or use another aquaplaning device unless they are wearing a U.S.C.G. approved non-inflatable Type I, II, III, or V personal flotation device (PFD). Inflatable personal flotation devices are prohibited.
  • No one may ski or use another aquaplaning device while impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
  • The operator of a vessel towing a skier may not pull the skier close enough to a fixed object or another vessel that there is risk of collision.

Interference with Navigation

  • Except in the event of an emergency, it is unlawful for any person to anchor or operate a vessel in a manner that will unreasonably interfere with the navigation of other vessels.

Divers-Down Flag

  • The size of divers-down flags displayed on vessels must be at least 20 inches by 24 inches, and a stiffener is required to keep the flag unfurled. Dive flags carried on floats may still be 12 inches by 12 inches. Also, divers-down flags on vessels must be displayed above the vessel's highest point so that the flag's visibility is not obstructed in any direction.
  • Divers must make reasonable efforts to stay within 300 feet of a divers-down flag on open waters (all waterways other than rivers, inlets, or navigation channels) and within 100 feet of a flag within rivers, inlets, or navigation channels.
  • Vessel operators must make a reasonable effort to maintain a distance of at least 300 feet from divers-down flags on open waters and at least 100 feet from flags on rivers, inlets, or navigation channels. Vessels approaching divers-down flags closer than 300 feet in open water and 100 feet in rivers, inlets, and navigation channels must slow to idle speed.

Liveries (Boat & PWC Rental Facilities)

  • The facility is prohibited from renting a vessel that does not have proper safety equipment, exceeds the recommended horsepower or load capacity, or is not seaworthy.
  • The facility must provide pre-rental or pre-ride instruction on the safe operation of the vessel with a motor of 10 horsepower or more. This instruction must include, at a minimum, operational characteristics of the vessel, safe operation and right-of-way, operator responsibilities, and local waterway characteristics. The person delivering this information must have completed a NASBLA/state-approved boater safety course.
  • All renters required by law to have a boater education ID card must have the card or its equivalent before the facility may rent to them.
  • The livery must display boating safety information in a place visible to the renting public in accordance with FWC guidelines.
  • PWC liveries must provide on-the-water demonstration and a check ride to evaluate the proficiency of renters.
  • PWC liveries may not rent to anyone under the age of 18.
  • PWC liveries must display safety information on the proper operation of a PWC. The information must include: propulsion, steering and stopping characteristics of jet pump vessels, the location and content of warning labels, how to re-board a PWC, the applicability of the Navigation Rules to PWC operation, problems with seeing and being seen by other boaters, reckless operation, and noise, nuisance, and environmental concerns.


All vessels operating with mechanical propulsion devices (such as gas or electric outboards) are required to be registered. Vessels used solely as a ship's lifeboat and vessels owned by the United States Government are not required to be registered. You must have a Florida Certificate of Registration and validation decal to legally operate a vessel on public waters in Florida. The only exceptions are non-motorized vessels and vessels used exclusively on private lakes and ponds.

Vessels must be registered and numbered within thirty (30) days of purchase. The Certificate of Registration and validation decal are issued by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The vessel registration decal must be renewed annually and is to be displayed within six (6) inches of, either before or after, the registration numbers on the port (left) side and must be displayed as follows:

  • Number must be painted, applied as a decal or otherwise affixed to both sides of the bow and maintained in a legible condition.
  • Number shall read from left to right on both sides of the vessel.
  • Number must be in at least three-inch-high bold BLOCK letters.
  • Number’s color must contrast with its background and be clearly observed.
  • Letters must be separated from the numbers by a hyphen or space equal to letter width; for example: “FL 3717 ZW” or “FL–3717–ZW”.
  • Registration numbers must be displayed on the forward half of the vessel on both sides above the waterline.

Decal must be affixed to the port (left) side of the vessel within six inches of the registration number. The decal may precede or follow the number.

Documented vessels without a state registration in full force and effect, must also obtain a Florida registration and display the validation decal on the port side of the vessel when using Florida waters.

If your vessel requires registration, it is illegal to operate or give permission for the operation of such vessel unless it is registered and numbered as described above.


A Certificate of Title proves ownership. All vessels are required to have a Certificate of Title. The only exceptions are:

* A non-motorized vessel less than 16 feet in length
* A vessel used exclusively on private lakes and ponds
* Vessels documented with the U. S. Coast Guard.

A Certificate of Registration is valid for one year and will expire on the last day of the month prior to the owner's birth month.

The owner of a registered vessel must notify the county tax collector within 30 days if he or she changes address.

The owner of a registered vessel must notify the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles within 30 days if the vessel is sold, stolen, destroyed, abandoned or lost.

Vessels must be registered and numbered within 30 days of purchase.

Owners of vessels registered in another state have 90 days to transfer the registration to Florida when Florida becomes the state of principal use.

Larger recreational vessels, owned by U. S. citizens, may (at the option of the owner) be documented by the U. S. Coast Guard. Documented vessels must also obtain a Florida registration and display the validation decal when operating on Florida waters for more than 90 days.

Mandatory Education and Age Requirements:

  • Anyone 21 years of age and under who operates a vessel powered by 10 horsepower or more must pass an approved boater safety course and have in his/her possession photographic identification and a boater safety identification card issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A person is exempt from this requirement if there is a person on board who is not affected by this law or is at least 18 years of age and holds a boater education I.D. card. This person must be attendant to and take responsibility for the safe operation of the vessel.
  • You must be at least 14 years of age to operate a PWC.
  • Anyone who is convicted of a criminal boating violation, any boating infraction resulting in a reportable boating accident, or two non-criminal boating safety violations within a 12-month period must attend and successfully complete an approved boating safety course and file proof with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The violator’s privilege to operate a vessel in the state will be suspended until proof of course completion is filed.

To contact one of our experienced trial lawyers call our Miami law office today at 800-836-6400 or click here for a free and full case evaluation.

Client Reviews
I have known Ira for several decades and without a doubt he represents the best of the profession- a never ending commitment to his clients and a perpetual desire for learning and sharing his expertise with his colleagues. Richard
I found, and still find, that Ira’s firm will evaluate the case fairly and provide the client with a reasonably expectation of the process involved and will avoid giving false hope where there is none. Also Ira’s firm consistently keeps in constant touch with the client as well as referring attorneys so each knows the progress of a case. Finally I can tell you that if I personally were injured, Ira Leesfield is the first person I would call. Michael Browning
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