Virginia boating accidents: Who is liable?

What should you do after a boating accident in Virginia?

Recreational boating can provide an enjoyable form of entertainment during the summer months. When done wisely, the sport can result in wonderful memories. Unfortunately, a simple act of negligence or carelessness can lead to a serious accident. A recent accident in Virginia that involved a speed boat traveling at 35 miles per hour colliding with a marine navigation marker provides an example.

An example of a crash: What happened?

The Virginia Marine Police investigated the wreck. The collision resulted in the death of a 25-year-old passenger as well as injuries to four children and five adults. There were 12 people on the boat at the time of the crash. The crash occurred after the group had dined at a nearby restaurant and was using the boat as a means of transportation to a home they were renting.

Investigators note the marker was flashing a red light every four seconds and should have been easily visible from miles away. Yet, for some reason, the boat operator failed to steer the vessel away from the marker.

Unfortunately, accidents like this are not uncommon. The United States Coast Guard reports there were 4,463 boating accidents in 2016. These recreational boating wrecks were responsible for 701 deaths and 2,903 injuries. Even more concerning, the agency reports these accidents are on the rise. The data collected for 2016 shows a 7.3 percent increase in the number of accidents and an 11.3 percent increase in the fatality rate compared to 2015.

Virginia boating accident: What to do after a crash?

Virginia state law requires the operator of the vessel to report the accident with the Commonwealth's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. A failure to do so can result in criminal charges.

Victims of the accident may be eligible for legal remedies. Victims may be able to hold the operator of the boat, owner of the vessel, rental company or even other passengers accountable through a civil lawsuit. This can lead to monetary awards to help cover the costs that result from the accident.

There are some unique complexities with boat accident cases. First, a victim may be able to hold multiple parties liable for the accident. Second, there is often a question of which law applies: federal maritime law or state law. The victim must know the answer in order to determine which court is the right venue or location for the lawsuit. The suit cannot move forward if in the wrong court. Generally, a victim would pursue the case in the federal courts if the waters that were used at the time of the accident are deemed "navigable." This includes those "subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce." In most cases, if the area of the accident does not meet this definition state law applies.

A real-life example: What happened with the crash discussed above?

The operator of the boat discussed in the crash above was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was estimated to have a blood alcohol level almost three times the legal limit of 0.08. In addition to facing a prison sentence of over three years, the victims of the crash could hold the driver accountable through a civil suit.