Practice Areas

Falls Overboard

Falling overboard and drowning is a top cause of fatalities involving small boats, and it’s also a serious problem on larger craft, too. In a smaller vessel, the instability makes a fall more likely. So too do erratic movements from boat operators, such as sharp turns, sudden stops and quick starts. On a larger vessel, failure to equip the boat with proper railings, warnings and other safety measures to prevent passengers from nearing the edge contribute to the danger.

Fort Myers boating injury lawyers at Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, have learned through more than four decades of experience representing wrongful death and injury plaintiffs that many times, these incidents occur due to the irresponsible actions of boat operators and/or staff. Proving negligence in a court of law, however, is not always a straightforward matter, so it’s imperative to have an experienced legal team at your side.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported in 2013 that a staggering 42 percent of all fatal boating accidents in the state were attributed to falls overboard. In fact, falling overboard has been consistently cited for many years as a main cause of boating deaths in Florida.

The FWC defines a “fall overboard” as “any person who unintentionally exits the vessel.” With nearly 818,000 registered vessels in the state of Florida as of 2013, opportunity for such incidents is vast.

A top cause of death in fatal boating accidents is drowning, accounting for 74 percent of all reported deaths. With regard to total accidents (not necessarily resulting in death), falls overboard were cited as the first harmful event as determined by state reviewing authorities in 43 of the total 736 incidents. That’s slightly less than 6 percent. In determining a secondary type of accident, state reviewing authorities cited falls overboard in 100 of those 736 accidents, or 13.5 percent. This tells us that when a person does fall overboard, they are far more likely to perish.

Nationally, the U.S. Coast Guard reported between 2003 and 2007 that there were 3,133 boating fatalities and of those, 749 – or 24 percent – were attributed to falls overboard.

It’s believed alcohol consumption played a part in 27 percent of daytime overboard fatalities and half of all nighttime overboard fatalities.

These figures only encompass incidents involving smaller boats – under 65 feet. Statistics for larger, cruise liners are more difficult to glean.

Falls Overboard on Large Vessels

Because so much of what happens on cruise ships occurs in international waters, cruise lines don’t legally have to report every incident aboard their ships with the public. That includes overboard falls.

Usually, the only statistic reported is when an American citizen is reported missing after an overboard fall. So if the person is later found – dead or alive – it usually isn’t reported. Even then, incidents are only reported when cruise lines are heading to or from North America. That means the figures we have are rough estimates – and low estimates.

What we do know, according to a Miami Herald analysis, is between 2010 and 2013, seven U.S. citizens went missing. The newspaper consulted with a sociologist, who estimated the actual number for this time period was likely somewhere around 30 incidents (and cruise operators, when pressed, confirmed at least 28). That means these companies are only reporting about one-fourth of all overboard falls.

In late 2013, Congress introduced H.R. 3475, also known as the Cruise Vessel Consumer Confidence Act, which would have required cruise lines to publically report all overboard falls in international waters, among other reforms. However, the measure failed in committee, and it’s unclear when or if a similar measure will be introduced in the future.

Preventing Falls Overboard

The BoatUS Foundation has identified several possible prevention methods for overboard falls, which vary depending on the size of the vessel.

For smaller boats, the foundation recommends:

  • Boarding the boat one person at a time
  • Stepping into the middle of the boat
  • Keeping the weight centered and low
  • Adding grip tape or non-skid material to certain areas of the vessel
  • Keeping pets, particularly large dogs, from moving around in the vessel

In larger vessels, the foundation urges:

  • Assuring solid footing by keeping decks uncluttered and clear
  • Making sure passengers always sit or stand only in areas designated by operator, and never on the swim platform, bow or gunnels
  • Checking for weaknesses or wear in railing devices and life lines, which help keep passengers aboard

In general, the foundation indicates it’s a good idea for any person aboard a vessel to maintain three points of contact on the boat at all time. That means both feet should be firmly planted on the ship while you are holding on with at least one hand. If you are sitting down, make sure both feet are on the floor or you are holding on with both hands.

Contact Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights. There are no fees or costs unless we win. Offices in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples and Port Charlotte.

Call 800-646-1210 for a Free Consultation

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