Boating, Personal Watercraft (PWC), and Cruise Ship Accidents


Boating Accidents

Boating and PWC accidents may occur on the ocean, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and virtually any other body of water. They cover a wide range of craft, including cruise ships, fishing boats, barges, ferries, catamarans, yachts, deck boats, various types of inboard and outboard motorboats, sailboats, dinghies, kayaks, canoes, and water scooters/personal watercraft (e.g. Jet Ski®, Waverunnner®, Sea-Doo®). If you or a loved one was injured on a boat or personal watercraft (PWC) you may have grounds for a lawsuit against the owners, operators, or manufacturer of the craft if you can prove they contributed to the accident.

Common Causes of Boating and Personal Watercraft Accidents

Below are some of the causes of boating and watercraft accidents:

  • Operator Inattention - failure on the part of the operator to pay attention to the vessel, its occupants, or the environment in which the vessel is operating.
  • Operator Inexperience - lack of practical experience or knowledge in operating the vessel.
  • Improper lookout - the failure of the operator to perceive danger because no one was serving as lookout or the person acting as lookout failed in their duty.
  • Excessive Speed - speed above that which a reasonable person would have operated the vessel under the conditions that existed. Excessive speed does not necessarily mean speed above a posted limit.
  • Machinery or equipment failure - defect and/or failure in the machinery or material, design or construction, or components of the vehicle (e.g., engine, transmission, fuel system, electric system, and steering system).
  • Traveling in hazardous waters or dangerous weather (high or rough seas) 
  • Improper anchoring - where a boat is either in the process of being anchored incorrectly or incorrectly held in place in the water by an anchor.
  • Sharp turn - an immediate or abrupt change in the vessel's course of direction, increasing the risk of capsizing or other accident.
  • Improper loading or overloading - excessive loading of the vessel causing instability, limited maneuverability, dangerously reduced freeboard, etc. 
  • Failure to vent - prior to starting the engine, failure to turn on the powered ventilation system that brings in “fresh air” and expels gasoline vapors from the engine compartment.
  • Navigation rules violation - violation of the statutory and regulatory rules governing the navigation of vessels.
  • Congested waters - where the body of water is either too small or narrow to safely accommodate the number of boats on it.
  • Force of wave/wake - waves resulting from the nearby passage of another boat's hull. Large wakes can capsize a boat or cause it to collide with another boat or object.
  • Restricted vision – when a vessel operator's vision is limited by a vessel's bow high trim, or by glare, sunlight, bright lights, a dirty windshield, spray, a canopy top, etc.
  • Negligent or reckless passengers or crew, including alcohol use
  • Off throttle steering – applies to personal watercraft where there is a lack of steerability in an off-throttle situation.

Boating injuries

Boating accidents can result in serious, life-changing injuries. Depending on the types of injuries you sustain, you may require expensive medical care such as reconstructive surgery, vocational rehabilitation, permanent medical equipment, and medications. You may also suffer lost income and a diminished quality of life. Injuries include:

  • drowning/death
  • head injury/traumatic brain injury (brain damage)
  • damage to organs (e.g. heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, etc.)
  • back and spinal cord injury or paralysis
  • amputation of limbs
  • broken bones and fractures
  • soft tissue damage (e.g. muscles, tendons, ligaments) 
  • burns
  • hypothermia
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • deep cuts/lacerations
  • loss of sight or hearing
  • Illness (e.g. food poisoning, norovirus, Legionnaires' disease, and  enterotoxigenic escherichia coli contracted on a cruise ship)

If you were involved in an accident you should attempt to record and preserve, to the extent possible and safety permitting, as much evidence as possible. Such evidence and details may help your attorney settle or win your case, so it's a good idea to record every detail possible while the accident is still fresh in your memory. For example, a list of damages, photos, names of possible witnesses, and medical records are often very helpful in building a strong case. 

National boat accident statistics

According to the U.S. Coast Guard's 2017 Report on Recreational Boating:

  • In 2017, there were 4,291 accidents that involved 658 deaths, 2,629 injuries and approximately $46 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents.
  • The top five types of accidents were:
    • Collision with recreational vessel, accounting for 1145 accidents, 49 deaths, and 721 injuries
    • Collision with fixed object, accounting for 470 accidents, 63 deaths, and 327 injuries 
    • Flooding/swamping, accounting for 435 accidents, 76 deaths, and 132 injuries 
    • Grounding, accounting for 368  accidents, 17 deaths, and 224 injuries 
    • Falls overboard, accounting for 306 accidents, 179 deaths, and 126 injuries 
  • The most common vessel types involved in reported accidents were:
    • Open motorboats, accounting for 305 deaths, and 1367 injuries
    • Canoes and kayaks, accounting for 138 deaths, and 107 injuries
    • Personal watercraft, accounting for 46 deaths, and 624 injuries
    • Cabin motorboat, accounting for 36 deaths, and 220 injuries
  • The top known cause of death in recreational boating accidents was drowning (76% of all fatalities), resulting in 449 deaths. The second most common cause of death was trauma, resulting in 113 deaths.
  • 84.5% of those who drowned were not wearing a life jacket.
  • Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, machinery failure, and alcohol use rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.
  • 81% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction.
  • Alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; where the primary cause was known, it was listed as the leading factor in 19% of deaths. 
  • Excessive speed was the sixth-ranked contributing factor in accidents.

California Boating Accidents

By law, boat operators or owners must report the boating accident to the California Department of Boating and Waterways (Cal Boating) when a person dies, disappears, or is injured and requires medical treatment beyond first aid, or when total damage to all vessels involved and other property is more than $500, or when there is complete loss of a vessel. 

According to official California 2016 statistics:

  • There were 588 boating accidents in California, resulting in 266 injuries, 50 deaths, and $3,911,886 in property damage.
    • 322 accidents, 116 injuries, and 14 deaths occurred in Southern California. Southern California represented 55% of all accidents statewide, 44% of injuries, and 28% of fatalities.
    • There were 80,815 vessels registered in Los Angeles County—more than any other county—12% of the statewide total. 
    • Sixty-four boating accidents occurred in Los Angeles County, resulting in 20 injuries, and 2 fatalities
  • The vast majority (36%) of California boating accidents involved the collision with another vessel. 
    • The majority of these collision accidents (62%) involved personal watercraft (PWCs). 
  • The top five known causes of accidents in California were: operator inattention (32%), operator experience (25%), excessive speed (15%), machinery failure (11%), and passenger/ski behavior (7%).
  • The majority of California boating accidents involved open motorboats (298), followed by cabin motorboats (147), personal watercraft (145), and auxiliary sail (106).
  • The most common causes of boating accident fatalities were drowning (143) and trauma (40). 
  • Alcohol was involved in 28% (14/50) of California boating accident fatalities reported in 2016.  

Cruise Ship Accidents and Incidents

Cruise ships and cruise liners have become massive floating luxury resorts boasting five star restaurants, shopping, gambling, and a wide range of activities. The vast majority of large ship cruises give passengers a memorable, safe, entertaining, and incident-free experience. However, their sheer size and huge passenger capacity does present unique hazards and challenges that may result in serious injury. 

Over the past three decades cruise ships have continued to grow larger and larger in size – the largest cruise ships have grown a third longer, doubled their widths, doubled the total number of passengers, and tripled in weight.  As of 2019, the largest cruise ship in the world measures 238 feet tall, spans 1,188 feet long, has 18 decks, and can accommodate 6,680 passengers. In spite of their huge size, cruise ships have become more stable due to their width, low center of mass, and improved stabilizer technologies. Nevertheless, catastrophic accidents have occurred in recent years, the most notable being the January 2012 sinking of the Italian Cruise ship Costa Concordia resulting in 32 deaths, and the 2019 tour boat collision which occurred in Hungary on the Danube river, resulting in at least 28 deaths. Furthermore, in recent years there have been tragic accidents involving people falling overboard – one such accident in 2019 involved an 18-month year who died when she fell 150 feet from an open window aboard a cruise ship. 

In addition to injuries and deaths related to collisions and sinking or passengers falling overboard, cruise ships also present the same dangers as any hotel resort, including: food poisoning, burglary, assaults, and kidnapping. The risk of illness has been a particularly troubling issue as reports of norovirus, e.coli, and legionnaire's disease have increased over the years. It is the responsibility of the ship owners and cruise companies to ensure that their ships and crew members maintain a safe place for their passengers. 

Cruise Line Passengers and the Law

Cruise ship and cruise liner injuries are governed by general maritime law. A ship's flag determines what country has jurisdiction over legal claims and disputes, so American maritime law will govern a ship with an American flag off the coast of Italy, for example. Usually, a cruise ticket contains terms and conditions which try to limit the jurisdiction of the cruise ship to where the cruise line is headquartered.

Maritime law is complex. Any passenger injured or victimized aboard a cruise ship or other commercial boat such as a sport fishing boat, dinner cruise, or sightseeing tour boat should seek the help of an experienced attorney knowledgeable of maritime law. 


One serious psychological consequence often associated with boating accidents is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To read more about this, please click here.

Helping Boating, Personal Watercraft, and Cruise Ship Injury Victims 

If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury on a boat, personal watercraft, a cruise ship, you may have grounds for a personal injury claim. Boating, personal watercraft, and cruise ship accidents are especially complex because they fall under a specific area of law called admiralty or maritime law which governs accidents and incidents occurring on various waterways. Therefore, you need a legal team such as ours, with extensive knowledge of waterway accidents and the latest technology and resources to analyze how and why boating accidents happen. Our attorneys also have experience in the medical issues that often arise from serious injuries that can occur as a result of a boating or cruise ship accident. We encourage you to contact us for a free, confidential, and no-obligation review of your potential legal claim and see how we can help!

Rated #1 US News & World Report

"Lawyer of the Year Award...Through your outstanding leadership and advocacy, you have provided the voice of justice in protecting the basic human rights of your clients." Governor of California


Nationwide Litigation & International Arbitration