Boating accidents often result in serious and life-changing injuries, and they typically occur during recreational outings and events when we least expect a devastating outcome. Boat operators cannot anticipate every single dangerous situation, but there are many steps we can take to reduce the risk of injury to our family and others while boating.
A recent collision between two boats on Lake Rosseau resulted in the tragic death of a 13-year-old Toronto girl and a 51-year-old Oakville mother. Four other boat occupants were transported to hospital with serious injuries, one of whom sustained life-threatening injuries. There were three occupants in each of the two boats and all were thrown into the water on impact. One of the boats, carrying a 51-year-old mother, Maureen Spero, and her grown children, was on route to a nearby hotel where they were planning to eat dinner, only a 5-minute boat ride from their cottage. A witness told attending police officers that, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, it was difficult and dangerous to rescue people in the water because one of the two unmanned boats continued to circle the area at high speed and constantly changed directions without any warning. Sadly, Spero’s children and other rescuers had difficulty locating Ms. Spero in the water and she was later found to have drowned.
The terrible crash on Lake Rosseau occurred at the same time as a well-publicized Ontario trial involving another tragic Muskoka boating accident. On August 24, 2019 on Lake Joseph, during the late evening hours, a speedboat driven by Linda O’Leary (wife of T.V. personality Kevin O’Leary) crashed into a large luxury boat, resulting in the death of two passengers. The front of the O’Leary boat cut into the luxury boat’s fibreglass hull as far as the front seats, where a 48-year-old woman and 64-year-old man were seated; both suffered fatal blunt force trauma injuries (National Post, July 19).
Prosecutors charged the operator of the luxury vessel with failure to display proper lights (to which he plead guilty but maintained that his navigation lights were on) and also charged Ms. O’Leary with careless operation of a vessel under the Canada Shipping Act (a charge which Ms. O’Leary denies). During the trial, an OPP maritime accident reconstructionist testified that the luxury vessel’s failure to use proper navigational lights is the cause of the collision. The reconstructionist based his decision on physical evidence, such as damage to the boats and a cottage security camera video (showing that the luxury boat’s lights were not visible until 49 seconds after the collision); the reconstructionist did not take into account the behaviour of the two boat operators, including evidence that Ms. O’Leary registered a warning level for alcohol content in a breath test taken after the crash.
Among the most common causes of boating accidents are: drunk driving, operator error, excessive speed, darkness/poor visibility and weather-related incidents. Many boating accidents and boating-related drownings are actually single-boat incidents; for example, where the vessel was swamped by waves, struck submerged rocks, or capsized in rapids. Further, in the majority of boating accidents involving drowning, the accident victim was not wearing a life jacket.
We generally don’t consider the possibility of a boating accident when we take a boat ride, but there are several actions we can take in advance of our trip to greatly reduce the risk of something going wrong. For example, it’s important to check the weather forecast and avoid setting out when storms and high winds are predicted.
There is a particular onus of responsibility for boat operators and owners, who are not only obligated to take due care while driving, but must also ensure that the boat is in good operating condition and has proper safety equipment for the size of the vessel, including personal floatation devices for each passenger (as set out by Transport Canada). In the event of a boating accident resulting in serious injury, a boat operator who is found negligent can be held responsible for medical costs, lost income and other losses incurred by the injured party. In the case of a severe injury, the costs can exceed $1 Million.
Unfortunately, many boat owner/operators do not have boat insurance, and this oversight can result in a huge burden if they injure someone and are liable for the damages. A small boat may be covered under your home or cottage policy; however, if you own a boat, it’s always a good idea to talk to your insurer and make sure you are protected in the event of a boating accident. Then, with the knowledge you have adequate insurance, and have taken steps to make sure your boat is in good working order and has any needed safety equipment, you can rest assured that you’ve done all you can to prepare for a safe and enjoyable summer on the water.