In Alabama, as in most states, the law that controls a claim for compensation for injuries will differ significantly depending on whether a person is injured on land or on water. Most claims for injury on land are based on the theory of common law negligence or the failure to exercise reasonable care. Although some claims for injuries on a waterway may be based on negligence, in many instances they are controlled by specific statutes that comprise admiralty law.
There are several key differences between a person’s rights in a common law negligence case and an admiralty law case. For instance, under the common law, Alabama applies the doctrine of contributory negligence, meaning that if you contribute to the cause of an injury, no matter how slightly, you are barred from any recovery. Comparative negligence applies in Admiralty law cases so fault is apportioned between the parties. If one person is 10% at-fault, they can still recover 90% of the damages they suffered. It is also significantly more difficult to bring a wrongful death action under admiralty law versus common law. Another key difference between a motor vehicle collision under common law and a boat collision under admiralty law is that “guest statutes” such as the Alabama Guest Statute have been found not to apply. In addition, common law motor vehicle injury cases in Alabama are governed by a two year statute of limitations, while an Admiralty boat collision case would have a three year statute of limitations in which to file a lawsuit.
Although Alabama has adopted a Mandatory Automobile Liability Insurance Act, there is no requirement that an operator of a boat have liability insurance. A person with a boating license may operate a watercraft at 12 years old so long as they are supervised by a person over 21 years old. A 14 year old person with a license can operate a watercraft unsupervised.
Despite the many differences, there are similarities between motor vehicle collisions and boat collisions. For example, Alabama law requires that anyone involved in a motor vehicle collision must stop and remain at the scene as well as offer reasonable assistance to any injured party, such as calling an ambulance for an injured party. Code of Alabama §§ 32-10-1 through 32-10-2. This is also true for boat collisions. In a boat collision where a party is injured, the other boater involved in the collision has an affirmative duty to render aid “as may be necessary in order to save them from or minimize any danger caused by the collision.” Code of Alabama § 33-5-25(a). Likewise, the penalties in Alabama for operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs are the same as operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. See Code of Alabama §§ 32-5A-191 and 32-5A-191.3.
When determining whether claims for injuries resulting from a boat collision will be controlled by Alabama common law or admiralty law, the courts look at two factors. If the incident was on a navigable waterway (i.e. a body of water that a boat can travel to from a connecting body of water) and whether the incident has a significant connection to a traditional maritime activity such as boating.
Alabama courts will likely apply admiralty law to incidents that occur on many of the rivers and lakes that are popular with boaters in North Alabama, such as the Tennessee River, Elk River, Lake Guntersville, Wilson Lake, Coosa River and Weiss Lake. In contrast, Lake Martin is created by two lockless dams and you cannot get to it by boat from a different body of water; therefore, it is not “navigable” and an argument could be made that admiralty law does not apply. Smith Lake is also not likely to be considered a navigable waterway. To learn more about what is considered a “navigable waterway”, review the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Map of Navigable Waterways.
Most cases that involve injuries on navigable waterways are brought in federal court, because Federal District Courts have jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases. However, it is possible to bring an action in Alabama courts, but the Alabama court will be forced to apply admiralty law instead of Alabama common law.
Our attorneys have extensive experience with personal injury cases in Alabama, including boating and watercraft cases. While boating is a great recreational activity, boat operation comes with serious responsibilities, and negligent or reckless operators should be held to their responsibilities if injuries do occur. If you or a loved one has been injured in a watercraft collision, feel free to contact us to discuss your rights.