Boat Party Injury - Expert Investigation

In this article, Naval Architect and Marine Safety Expert Kyle McAvoy (Captain, USCG – Retired) shares details from a forensic investigation involving an individual who broke his neck after diving off a boat in shallow water. Through this incident, McAvoy explains the safety standards relevant to boats moored or at anchor.

BOAT PARTY INJURY – EXPERT INVESTIGATION

The defendant in this case was hosting guests on his boat as part of an extended neighborhood block party. His boat was anchored just off the beach, but in shallow enough water to enable guests to wade out to it from shore. The injury involved an invited guest of the party who dove off the anchored boat into shallow water and broke his neck. Marine Safety Expert, Kyle McAvoy was retained to investigate whether the boat owner/operator’s actions or inactions contributed to his guest’s injury.

The first step in this investigation was to establish the actual location of the vessel and the depth of the water in that position on the date of incident. The boat was moved 4 times throughout that day to keep up with the tides, and the vessel owner testified that he intended to keep the boat in the shallowest water possible (approximately 24-30 inches deep) to permit, and perhaps encourage, guests to come visit on the boat as part of the extended party.

The location of the boat relative to the shore was reconstructed by correlating images from the boat on the date of incident and witness testimony. These accounts were then compared to available historical satellite imagery, and superimposed onto a nautical chart, which confirmed the boat’s position and soundings (water depth).

In addition to the depth of the water, the number of guests on board needed to be accounted for. The owner’s manual for that make/model of boat states that the maximum capacity is 14 persons. Witness testimony on the date of the incident places between 15 - 20+ guests aboard, overloading the vessel. Witnesses had varying accounts of other guests jumping off of the boat, doing cannonballs and backflips into the shallow water, and did not recall the boat owner instructing anyone that it was unsafe to dive.

Operating and Navigating – Not Mutually Exclusive

It’s important to note that an anchored boat with guests on board is considered operational. Per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Subchapter S – Boating Safety, Operate is defined as “Use, navigate, or employ,” and an Operator is “the person who is in control or in charge of a vessel while it is in operation.” Therefore, the best practices that apply while a boat is in motion, navigating the waters, apply equally to a boat that is anchored and being used to entertain guests.

In this case, the operator of the vessel was an experienced, life-long boater. The guest who was injured had zero boating experience. The operator had the responsibility for the safety of the boat and for the people on board, the people swimming/wading in the nearby vicinity, and anyone else who may be affected by the boat’s course or wake.

Known Hazards: Shallow Water and Overloading

Diving into shallow water is a known and well-established hazard that clearly has the potential to cause injuries. That hazard applies equally to diving from a boat into shallow water. Based on the owner’s boating experience, and, the fact that he consciously anchored in shallow water, he should have known that it would be dangerous for anyone to dive off of his boat, and therefore he should have taken measures to ensure the safety of his guests on board.

Overloading the boat, aside from violating the manufacturer’s guidelines, also hindered the operator’s ability to successfully manage his responsibilities to be attentive to the safety of his boat and his guests. Independent of the boat’s ability to remain stable with the extra weight on board due to the over capacity of guests, the operator’s ability to exercise sound crowd management techniques was negatively impacted.

The owner also failed to report his guest’s injury, which is required per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. These reports are relied upon by the U.S. Coast Guard, state and national boating organizations to compile statistics on boating injuries and identify necessary steps to improve boater safety, standards and regulations, identify and remedy boat defects, investigate accidents, and measure the effectiveness of boating safety programs, among others.

MARINE SAFETY INVESTIGATIONS

The issues presented in this article potentially relate to a broad range of injuries and other mishaps that occur on/around boats that are docked or anchored at sea. The use of watercraft as a place for entertaining or lodging is normal and expected and the responsibility for the safety of passengers generally falls on the captain.

The maritime practice group at Robson Forensic includes in-house marine safety experts, retired ship captains, marina operators, and much more. Contact us to discuss your case and to be connected with a qualified expert.

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