Applicability of Maritime Law to Florida Boat Accident

Boating for recreation is common in Florida. If an accident arises while boating, what law applies? Whether maritime law applies depends upon the body of water involved. In a 2009 case a personal representative of a decedent’s estate brought a lawsuit for personal injuries sustained by the decedent in a boat accident. The case arose when Jeffrey Briggs rented a boat from a lighthouse marina after drinking alcohol. His mother and father were boat passengers.

Two or three hours after they started boating, Jeffrey hit the wake from a larger boat. His mother flew into the air and broke her back on the floor of the boat. She had to be in a body cast for 8 months after the accident. Almost four years after the accident, she sued her son, the company that rented him the boat, and the boat’s manufacturer. In an amendment to the complaint, she alleged that the company had negligently entrusted the boat to her son and claimed breach of contract against her son.

The defendant filed for summary judgment. Initially they were denied, but they were filed again after discovery. The defendants argued that the woman’s claims were barred by a three-year statute of limitations for torts under maritime law. The trial court granted summary judgment, finding that the incident happened in navigable waters and bore a substantial relationship to maritime activity. Since it had been filed four years after the accident, the plaintiff’s action was barred.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing there were issues of material fact about where the accident had happened. Jeff and his mother had disagreed about the location in their deposition testimony. The trial court had specifically assumed that the accident happened where the plaintiff said it did. Both the locations were located in the Loxahatchee River, which provided access to the Atlantic Ocean.

The plaintiff argued that experts disagreed about whether the accident site was navigable and that this would affect whether maritime law applied. The appellate court explained that there were no conflicts in the record as to the navigability, only differences in the legal conclusions drawn by the experts. Since the legal questions were questions of law, the trial judge had properly disregarded them.

The plaintiff’s expert had supported his claim that the river was non-navigable because it had sandbars, shallow areas and a fixed bridge. The appellate court explained that those features of the river did not stop it from being a navigable waterway subject to maritime law. It noted that vessels could travel under the bridge and the sandbar areas included navigational aids. None of these features were contributing causes of the accident.

The plaintiff also argued that his lawsuit did not involve a maritime suit and therefore should not be subject to the maritime statute of limitations. The appellate court explained that maritime law governed a personal injury claim like the plaintiff’s if the accident arose on navigable waters and bore a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. The statute of limitations in maritime personal injury cases was three years.

The court reasoned that operating a boat is a traditional maritime activity. The only issue left to be decided was whether the accident had happened on navigable waters. The test for determining whether something is “navigable waters” is whether they are used or able to be used as highways for commerce over which trade and travel are or could be conducted.

While there was no commercial maritime activity on the river at issue, the waterway was capable of being used for that purpose. All the defendants had testified that large boats were on the river and that a 30-foot-long boat had created the accident-causing wake.

If you are seriously hurt because of someone else’s negligence or recklessness, contact the knowledgeable Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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