Often times after a hurricane or strong ‘Noreaster, many boaters strike unmarked vessels wrecked in the storm. Often times, these collisions cause personal injuries to the passengers and guests onboard the moving boat. The question often becomes, who is responsible? There are 3 possible answers.
The obvious first answer is the person who owned the wrecked vessel. The Federal Wreck Removal Statute requires an owner to mark the wrecked vessel immediately and maintain the mark until the wreck is removed. This is a non-delegable duty, meaning if the owner hires someone to mark the vessel and they didn’t, the owner is still liable for any injuries resulting from the failure to mark the wreck. The Federal Wreck Removal Statute also requires the owner to immediately begin removal operations. Should the owner fail to commence removal operations, a person injured by the wrecked vessel may bring a claim against the vessel owner for damages. Like the requirement to mark the sunken vessel, the duty to remove it is also non-delegable.
The Federal Wreck Removal Statute is designed for safety and to avoid collisions. Therefore, should the owner fail to comply, maritime law imposes a presumption that the failure to mark or remove the vessel caused the accident. This places a heavy burden upon the wreck owner to prove not only the failure to mark or remove the wreck was not the cause of the accident but could not have caused the accident. This burden is nearly impossible to overcome.
An injured boating passenger or guest may also bring a lawsuit against the person who the wreck’s owner hired to mark and remove the sunken vessel. Liability only arises, however, if the third party fails to mark and/or carry out its duty to remove the vessel in a reasonable manner.
Finally, the injured passenger or guest may be able to bring a claim against the operator of the moving boat. The injured passenger or guest would have to prove the operator failed in its responsibility to:
- Keep a proper lookout;
- Operate at a safe speed;
- Monitor operational radar (assuming some part of the wrecked vessel was above the water); or,
- Abide by any other navigational rule which would have avoided the accident if followed.
If you were injured due to a boat colliding with a wrecked vessel and would like to know about your rights, we invite you to contact our board certifed maritime lawyers specializing in boating accidents to discuss your claim.