Miscellaneous Boating Accident Issues
These accidents are not controlled by Maryland Common Law. They are generally governed by maritime law of the United States, sometimes referred to as admiralty law. This applies whenever the collision or accident occurs on navigable waters and bears a significant connection to traditional maritime activities. See Yamaha Motor Corp v. Calhoun, 516 US 199 (1996). Bodies of water are navigable if they form, in their ordinary condition by themselves or by uniting with other waters, a continued highway over which commerce is or may be carried on with other states or foreign countries in the customary modes in which such commerce is conducted by water. Accordingly, a body of water is not navigable if it is completely landlocked within a single state.
Negligence under admiralty law is similar to Maryland common law negligence with some important exceptions. Pure comparative negligence applies so that a plaintiff’s negligence that contributes to the injuries does not bar recovery, rather it only mitigates the damages. See Pope and Talbott, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 US 406. An injured plaintiff who is ninety percent at fault can still recover ten percent of his damages. Assumption of the risk is also not a defense. See DeSole v. United States, 947 F. 2d 1169. Punitive damages are available upon proof of reckless and willful misconduct by the vessel owner. See Edwards v. Jones, 1999 W L 641776 (D. MD.) (1999 A.M.C. 1078) Quoting Benedict on Admirality, Section 5.02 (D) (3).
The statutory cap on non-economic damages does not apply because federal law pre-empts state law. In addition, pure admiralty cases filed in the Federal Court are non-jury where as such cases filed in the state court can be jury or non-jury. See Vadusek v. Bayliner Marine Corp., 71 F 3d 148 (1955).
Navigational rules (which are very similary to Article 21 of the Transportation Code for Highway Traffic Rules) can be found at 33 USC Section 2001-2073. One can also find these rules online at www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/rotr_on-.htm. The statutory rules are divided into two sets, one set applicable to international waters and one set applicable to inland waters. Each set relates to things like lights, equipment, signals, rights of way and other actions all designed to avoid collisions. Anyone operating a pleasure boat or personal watercraft is charged with knowledge of these rules and is under a mandatory duty to obey them, see Moore 445 F Supp 2d at 522. Under the Pennsylvania rule (Pennsylvania, 19 Wall. 125, 86 US 125 22LEd 148 a party violating a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions, bears the burden of proving not only that its actions might not have been one of the causes of the collision or that its actions probably were not the cause of the collision, but that the party’s actions could not have been a cause of the collision. See Hygrade Operations, Inc. v. Tugtahchee, 307 F Sup 2d 626 ( D.N.J. 2003).
Violation of one of the navigational rules shifts the burden to the defendant to show by clear and convincing evidence that its failure to comply with the rule did not contribute to the collision.