State laws govern lawsuits regarding recreational boating accidents only if federal laws and the general maritime law do not apply. Federal laws and the general maritime law may apply to a lawsuit even if the lawsuit is filed in a state court. However, if a plaintiff waives the federal laws or the general maritime law, the lawsuit will be governed by state laws.
Most states have enacted navigational statutes that govern the use and operation of recreational boats. Most states have also enacted statutes that govern the safety equipment that is required on recreational boats. Those state laws generally incorporate the federal Inland Navigational Rules or the “rules of the road.” The federal boating rules prescribe standards of conduct that are applicable to recreational boating. For example, when two powerboats are approaching each other head on, each boat must alter its course to starboard and must pass the other boat on the other boat’s port side. Also, boats proceeding along a narrow channel must keep as close to the outer limit of the channel as would be safe and practicable. If an operator of a boat violates any of these state navigational statutes, he or she is deemed to be negligent as a matter of law.
In some states, there are criminal statutes that may apply to recreational boating accidents. Violations of those criminal statutes would also constitute negligence as a matter of law in a civil action. For example, there are criminal statutes that prohibit the operation of a motorboat by a child and that prohibit the operation of a motorboat in areas where people are fishing, swimming or diving. Most states have criminal statutes that prohibit the operation of a watercraft while intoxicated. Watercraft may include boats, water skis, aquaplanes, or any other device that is used to transport people on water.
Most states have enacted statutes that specify the types of equipment that must be carried on vessels. The type of equipment that is required depends upon the class of the vessel. Some types of vessels may be partially exempted from the requirements.
In most states, if a boat is involved in an accident, the operator of the boat is required to give his or her name and address and to identify his or her boat to any person who is injured in the accident or to any person whose property has been damaged by the accident. The operator is also required to render assistance to other persons, if such assistance would not present a serious danger to the operator’s own vessel, crew, or passengers.
If a death occurs as a result of recreational boating accident, a state’s wrongful death statute may be applied. As with all other accidents, the state’s general tort and negligence laws may also be applied.