Finding Negligence in Boating Accidents

Posted by Injury Lawyers of Ontario on August 03, 2016

Boat operators are equally responsible under the law to drive with caution and adhere to many of the same legal requirements as car and truck drivers.  This means that many Ontario regulations governing motor vehicles also apply to the operation of boats, such as driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and remaining at the scene of an accident that results in injury.  There are also additional requirements for boats in terms of mandated safety equipment, the most basic of which are personal floatation devices for each passenger, bailers and paddles.

Boaters, particularly those operating motorized vessels, sometimes forget their obligation to safe practices when they get caught up in the excitement or relaxed environment of recreational boating on Canadian lakes and rivers.  However, in addition to the very real risk of injury to one’s passengers, other boaters and swimmers, boat operators need to be aware that they can be held negligent in a civil suit if their careless or negligent action results in injury to another person.  Of course, boaters can also face both traffic violations and criminal charges, such as driving while impaired or dangerous driving.

In an exhaustive 2011 study covering 18 years by the Canadian Red Cross and Transport Canada titled Boating Immersion and Trauma Deaths in Canada, researchers concluded that many boaters remain unaware or ignore simple principles of boating safety and suffer fatal injuries.  “Canadians who faithfully fasten their safety belts and avoid alcohol in the much less dangerous traffic environment embark onto the water without the protection of a properly worn flotation device, often in boats that are unsafe except in ideal conditions. Many boaters are weak swimmers or cannot swim at all.” Further, this report criticizes boaters, including drivers and passengers, who load up on, and consume alcohol, despite being ill advised while boating, rather than ensuring that everyone on the boat has an appropriate floatation device.  

Every year in Ontario, boating accidents are responsible for a significant number of deaths involving immersion or trauma on the water. Boating fatalities are most often associated with failure to wear a life jacket and/or under the influence of alcohol.  In fact, many boating accidents result from similar careless behaviour as road accidents, notably impaired driving and distracted driving.  On July 17, 2016, CBC news reported that a woman was seriously injured while she was tubing and was struck by another boat on Nutimik Lake.  RCMP reported that the ‘at fault’ driver did not stop at the scene of the accident, and investigators are questioning potential witnesses in an attempt to find the suspected perpetrator.

Sometimes, when boating accidents occur on more remote Ontario lakes or rivers, there may be no one nearby to come to the aid of accident victims in time. Late one evening in June 2013, a group of four friends staying at a privately owned Lake Wanapitei camp, decided to attend a party on the other side of the lake. Their boat crashed on an island, resulting in fatal injuries to a 25 year old female and 33 year old male.  The lone conscious survivor of the crash started a signal fire in response to the 911 dispatcher’s suggestion, which eventually spread to the boat where an unconscious 34 year old male friend was trapped, resulting in his death.  The young man who called 911 for help was the only one to survive this tragic accident.

Now, the families of the young people who were killed are suing one another as well as Greater Sudbury emergency services charging that the rescue took too long. According to CBC News, July 4, 2016, the lone survivor and the family of his common-law girlfriend who suffered fatal injuries from the crash, have filed a $5.5 million lawsuit alleging that the owner of the camp and his son (who also died) were negligent in supplying large amounts of alcohol to everyone on the boat including the driver.  The suit further contends that “emergency services staff failed to arrange for a proper and timely rescue” and also that the seriously injured young woman "failed to receive necessary medical attention" before succumbing to her injuries a week later.

The family of the young man who died due to the fire is also suing the City as well as counter-suing the surviving man charging him with: improperly lighting a fire that risked spreading to the boat and for failing to rescue his friend in the boat who he knew to be alive.  The latter suit also alleges that the owner of the camp was not a “social host” on the day of the accident (and therefore not liable) as the other three members of the group brought their own alcohol and also because it was a group decision to take the boat across the lake.

Whatever the outcome of these lawsuits, it is clear that the lives of four families were tragically and irrevocably impacted by this accident. 

By law, anyone who was injured in a boating accident can file a civil suit for damages against the owner or operator of the boat. Similarly, the family of a fatally injured person may file a wrongful death suit.  However, because boating accidents are not covered under statutory ‘no fault’ accident benefits, injured persons cannot claim injury compensation from their motor vehicle insurer.  In situations such as the tragic Lake Wanapitei accident, the owner of the camp where the alcohol was consumed may also be liable, as may the Municipality of Sudbury.  In circumstances where the boat passengers may have, through actions such as drinking or failure to wear a life jacket, contributed to their own injury, the court may still find the boat operator/owner largely liable for the accident.

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