By Francis M. Smith
For New Jersey residents, taking to the water is a popular way to beat the late-summer heat, either at the beach or at one of the state’s numerous bodies of fresh water. The warm weather is an excellent opportunity to enjoy boating or the use of personal watercraft, but the popularity of boating brings its own dangers along. Car accidents remain the largest source of transportation-related injuries and fatalities in the U.S., but recreational boating accidents easily take up second place, with more than 4,158 accidents that caused 2,613 injuries and 626 deaths, as reported by the U.S. Coast Guard for 2015, an increase in fatalities over the year prior.
Many of these accidents happen for the same reasons that car accidents happen: operator inattention, inexperience, or intoxication. These can be made worse by factors such as speeding and adverse weather conditions. Although boating under the influence has not been the target of concerted public awareness efforts in the way that drunk driving has, it is nevertheless illegal to operate a boat or “vessel” (here defined as having permanently or temporarily fitted propulsion machinery, or measuring at least 12 feet in length) while impaired by any drug or alcohol, with a 0.08 BAC threshold. Drunk boaters may face legal penalties including fines, jail time, and the suspension of both boating privileges and driver’s licenses.
The potential injuries that may be sustained in a boating accident are varied, and can be devastating. The primary cause of fatalities in boating accidents is drowning, accounting for 76 percent of boating deaths, but aside from that notable difference, many injuries sustained in boating accidents are not dissimilar to those suffered in car crashes. When one car or boat strikes another, or collides with a stationary object, the occupants of the vehicle may be thrown about, struck by objects, or be injured by the force of the sudden deceleration. This can result in serious injuries, including damage to the neck, back, or spine; bone fractures; and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
If you are injured in a boating accident, you need to know what options you have to pay for your medical treatment. This is one critical way in which automotive and boating accidents in New Jersey differ: under New Jersey’s no-fault laws, the personal injury protection (PIP) coverage on each party’s own auto insurance policy covers that person’s medical treatment. However, no-fault laws do not exist for boating accidents, and boat insurance does not include PIP coverage. It does often include medical payments coverage, which works more like homeowners’ insurance than car insurance; this coverage takes effect after other insurance coverage options have been exhausted and there remains some amount of unpaid medical costs left over. Medical payments coverage extends to anyone who was injured on or by the insured boat, regardless of who was at fault for the accident. Since this coverage only applies after all other insurance options have been exhausted, your best option for covering your medical treatment (other than your own health insurance) is the liability coverage on the boat insurance policy of the person whose negligence caused the accident.
Another important reason to pursue a claim against the negligent boat operator’s liability coverage is that the costs of your medical treatment aren’t the only financial impact your injuries will have on your life. You may be unable to return to work for a period of time while you are recovering from your injuries – or in some severe cases, your injuries may have left you with a lasting impairment that prevents you from returning to the job you held previously. Likewise, your injuries may interfere with your everyday activities and responsibilities, including housekeeping and caring for children or pets. If you have to pay for help with these tasks, you deserve to be compensated for that expense, which would not have been necessary had you not been injured. In addition, the court system recognizes that some ways that an injury affects your life don’t have a price tag attached, but are nevertheless significant and meaningful losses for which you deserve compensation. This can include the physical pain and psychological trauma resulting from a serious injury, as well as any important life events that you were unable to attend or enjoy because of your injuries. Lost wages, child care expenses, and pain and suffering damages are not covered by your health insurance or medical payments coverage; the only way to obtain compensation for these forms of harm is by making a claim against the at-fault party’s liability coverage.
The most important thing you can do after a boating accident is to seek medical treatment right away, and follow all instructions issued by your medical providers. In doing so, you increase your chances of optimal medical recovery, and strengthen your injury claim.