Catastrophic Boating Injuries: was Negligence the Cause?

The carelessness of boat operators and/or occupants is a common cause of boating accidents and fatalities.

When someone is hurt or dies in a boating accident, questions will naturally be asked about the cause of the incident, particularly by loved ones. Many, if not most, incidents of boating fatalities or serious injury are preventable when safe boating is being practiced. Sometimes, our own mistakes are a factor in our personal injury, but often a boat operator’s negligence is responsible for boating accidents and the resulting death or injury to innocent victims.

If you or a loved one experienced a loss due to a boater’s carelessness, you are eligible to be compensated for your loss. No amount of money can undo the impact of catastrophic injury or replace a family member who was fatally injured in a boating accident. However, financial reparation and compensation alleviates at least, the financial burden that families and injured persons experience after an accident. An experienced lawyer with the Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) group can advise you of your rights and help you to determine the best course of action given your unique circumstances.

What are the causes of boating accidents?

Catastrophic boating accidents too often result in lost lives when there is poor planning or a lack of caution with regards to potential rough weather conditions. One such terrible accident occurred on Lake Timiskaming in June of 1978, when 12 boys and 1 volunteer drowned because their canoes capsized while they were attempting to cross the lake. The boys tragically died of hypothermia, and the accident was blamed on inexperience and poor planning. Another similarly preventable boating accident occurred in Georgian Bay in June of 2000 when a glass bottom boat sunk in rough waters off Flowerpot Island. The boat was carrying Grade 7 students on a field trip but no one was wearing a life jacket despite the turbulent water. 18 survivors managed to swim to the island but two 12 year olds drowned in this disastrous incident.

Recreational boating is the dominant boating activity in Ontario. Although boats are also operated for the purposes of travel and commercial fishing in this province, these boating activities are less common and correspondingly result in fewer accidents. Each year, about 40 per cent of drowning deaths and 50 per cent of water related fatalities result from boating, according to a Canadian Red Cross study of boating deaths based on 18 years of research. Some of these injuries and deaths are caused by drowning while boating, but sometimes trauma (resulting from boating crashes) and hypothermia are the cause. Young to middle-aged men are most often killed in boating accidents; almost all victims of drowning while boating were males aged 15 and older. In addition to the devastation to families who lost their sons and husbands, the Red Cross estimates that these deaths represented a loss of $6 Billion in terms of lifetime family earnings for the number of people killed in boating accidents during their 18 years of study.

Boating injuries and fatalities can happen while boating in motorized craft, as well as in boats without motors such as canoes and kayaks. Some of the factors in boating accidents are the same for the two types of crafts. In both types of craft, boaters are at greater risk of drowning when they fail to account for stormy and rough weather conditions, or if they get caught in an unexpected storm, resulting in capsizing and drowning. Smaller boats tend to be most vulnerable.

Life jackets save lives when they’re worn

A failure to wear a life jacket is highly correlated with drowning deaths, for all types of boats but particularly for smaller craft. Approximately 90 per cent of Canadians who died in boating accidents were not properly wearing a personal floatation device or life jacket. Even experienced swimmers can drown when a boat capsizes and they are overwhelmed by rough water and/or the shock of cold water. The Canadian Red Cross recommends that mandatory wearing of life preservers would have a significant impact on reducing boating fatalities and the suffering of families affected by these deaths.

Alcohol and boating… often a deadly combination

Boating accidents and fatalities also result from some of the same irresponsible behaviour that causes many motor vehicle accidents. In the Red Cross study, alcohol was a factor or suspected to be a factor in about half of the recreational boating deaths for people 15 years or older. When people unexpectedly fall into the water, even small amounts of alcohol consumption increases the risk of drowning. Alcohol is most commonly associated with boating crashes or drownings that happen while riding in a small motorboat, which is also the type of craft for which most boating fatalities occur.

Boat operators need to be aware that impaired boating in Ontario is subject to the same charges as impaired driving, and these regulations apply equally to motorized boats, jet skis, canoes and rafts. Boat passengers may consume alcohol while on board, but only if the boat is equipped with sleeping and cooking facilities, a permanent toilet and is anchored at the time. The minimum penalty if someone is convicted of operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is $600 for the first offence, with both prison time and fines for additional offences.

Other factors in boating deaths

Like driving, dangerous manoeuvers and speeding that result in collisions or falling overboard is also the source of many boating fatalities and injuries. In about 5 per cent of cases, the boat continued on without the driver after they fell into the water, and in some case, the boat or motor struck and killed the submerged driver.

When boating deaths result from activities such as running river rapids, the most common reason is that the boaters did not learn and practice the prerequisite skills needed for the activity. Inexperienced kayakers and canoeists are more often involved in hazardous incidents. Also a factor in these fatalities is the use of equipment or boats that are not appropriate or in proper working order for the specific activity.

Boating fatalities caused by trauma (versus drowning) are normally associated with crashing into other boats or rocks. Trauma fatalities involve motorized boats in 90 per cent of cases. Almost half of these deaths typically result from a crash with another boat; about 40 per cent are due to crashes with fixed objects; and the remainder generally involve activities such as waterskiing and tubing. Most traumatic accidents result in head or brain injury, which is a factor in about 45 per cent of trauma deaths. Spinal injuries, fractures and major lacerations are the other injuries that frequently occur in traumatic boating accidents.

Anyone who operates a boat is responsible for inspecting their equipment and boat to ensure it is in good running condition and properly equipped before heading out on a trip. Failure to do so can result in dire consequences, for example if the engine fails or runs out of fuel when far from shore. Responsible boat operators check the weather forecast before leaving to determine whether it’s safe to travel. It’s also vital to be aware of local hazards, such as rocks that can damage an engine or hull and/or cause a boat to capsize.

Canadian boating regulations

Boating laws in Ontario and throughout Canada are regulated by Transport Canada. All boats are required to carry various boating safety equipment; however, there are some differences in the requirements of boats of different sizes and types.

All boats are required to carry, at a minimum, the following equipment.

  1. Lifejackets or personal floatation devices (PFD) of appropriate size for all boat occupants. It is recommended that everyone wears their lifejacket, particularly in smaller boats.
  2. At least one manual propelling device, such as a paddle.
  3. A sound-signalling device, such as a whistle or horn.
  4. One buoyant heaving line at least 15 meters in length.
  5. A bailer, manual bilge pump or bilge-pumping arrangements (Note: these devices are not required for boats that have watertight compartments or cannot hold enough water to make them capsize).
  6. A watertight flashlight (or navigation lights), only required after sunset and before sunrise.
  7. Flares (Note: these are required only if the boat travels more than 1.852 km from shore).
  8. Re-boarding device, only if the vertical height to climb into the boat is over .5 meters.

Additional equipment requirements for motorized boats

Motorized vessels including personal watercraft (such as Jet Ski) must carry additional mandatory safety equipment, depending on the size and type of boat, as defined by Transport Canada. Boat operators should be aware of the requirements of their specific craft and ensure that all needed equipment is on board and functioning properly. Some of the equipment that may be required includes:

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Anchor
  • Navigation lights
  • Radar reflector
  • Magnetic compass
  • Multiple flares

Specific requirements for motorized boat operators

Anyone operating a motorized boat in Ontario needs a boating licence, as of September 15, 2009. This licence does not require renewal and is a requirement throughout Canada. Boaters must have their Pleasure Craft Operator Card (also called a boating licence) onboard at all times. In order to qualify for a boating licence, individuals need to first complete an examination followed by a test administered by Transport Canada; both can be completed online.

There are also age restrictions in all Canadian provinces for anyone who operators a motorboat. No one under the age of 12 can operate a boat above 10 horsepower unless supervised by someone over 16. Youth from age 12 to 15 years of age are prohibited from operating a boat with over 40 horsepower unless supervised by someone over 16. Also, you must be over 16 to operate a personal watercraft like a jet ski.

Unsafe boating puts others at risk

Not unlike the operation of motor vehicles, it is well proven that a failure to adopt safe boating practices increases the risk of drowning or traumatic injuries. At a minimum, boating operators must abide by Canadian regulations for the operation of their particular type of boat and also, in terms of driving sober. However, this is not enough to ensure safety for boat occupants. Responsible boat operators pay attention to weather conditions and forecasts; they do not speed in unknown waters; and they ensure that they have the necessary skills for the activity they are undertaking. Careless boating leads to collisions and capsizing, and can have disastrous consequences for boat occupants.

Accident victims of boating accidents are equally entitled to compensation for injuries caused by negligent drivers, as are the victims of motor vehicle accidents. Get expert help from an Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) lawyer if you are considering making a claim for accident compensation against the person responsible for your injuries or the death of your loved one. Call an ILO office in one of the communities near you.


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