Wakes Happen: Boat Operators Have a Duty to Be Aware of Circumstances and React Accordingly

With only several weekends left of the summer and recent  tragedies on the water,  it has called attention to an all-too-common problem that passengers and boat operators need to keep in mind. In a recent incident, an 11-year-old girl was killed after she and eight other people were knocked overboard by the force of a wake from another boat. She was struck by the propeller, causing fatal injuries.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the wake from a passing vessel has led to severe injuries. In many cases, the injuries could have been prevented or reduced if the operator of both boats had reacted properly.

Duty to Display Mature Judgment

When someone chooses to take on the responsibility for operating a boat, they assume duties to protect those on board and those in the immediate area. Among those is a duty to keep aware of all surroundings while operating the vessel. This includes monitoring:

  • The conditions of the sea
  • Currents and tides
  • Weather
  • Traffic in the area
  • Buoys and landmarks

In addition, the operator (or “captain”) of a vessel has a duty to react appropriately to any changing conditions or dangerous circumstances that arise. Large wakes are visible long before they come in contact with a boat.

When operators detect a large wake, they should give warnings to passengers and slow down prior to hitting the wake. Depending on the situation, it might also be wise to change course to hit the wake at a lesser angle. Hitting a wake or waves head on can cause passengers to fly out of their seats, causing them to impact the deck with severe force or to go overboard.

Vessels that produce large wakes have responsibilities as well, but these vary according to the situation. A boat operator cannot control what other vessels do and must take necessary precautions to protect passengers on board. When they fail to do so, they can be held liable for injuries that result.

A Case Example from Our Files

A few years ago, the team at Latti & Anderson LLP helped an injured passenger recover $950,000 when she suffered a burst fracture after being thrown to the deck by the force of hitting a wake. She was riding in a boat operated by a friend’s father, and instead of decreasing speed as they approached a wake from a cigarette boat, he sped up, and hit the wakes hard two times.

In addition to the boat operator’s failure to react appropriately to circumstances, he also failed to tell passengers where to sit for safety or to warn them about the impending impacts. Although the actions of the operators of passing boats was alleged to be the cause of the impact and injuries, in the end, the operator of the boat the victim was riding in was forced to accept most of the responsibility.

Holding Boat Owners Liable for Their Actions

At Latti & Anderson LLP, we are dedicated to protecting the lives and livelihoods of those who spend time on the water. If you suffered injuries in a boating accident caused by someone’s irresponsible behavior or inappropriate reactions, we may be able to help you assert your rights and receive compensation to offset your losses. We invite you to schedule a consultation to learn more.