When a car accident happens, most people know that they’ll need to trade information with the other driver and figure out compensation through an insurance company, often with the help of a lawyer. When a boating accident happens, on the other hand, people tend to be less prepared.
Boating is less regulated than driving, so many people who enjoy recreational watercraft have not been made aware of their rights or responsibilities in case of an accident.
The good news — or bad news, depending on your level of fault — is that boat accidents are very similar to car accidents, practically, morally, and legally. This means that if you’ve been seriously injured or lost a loved one due to someone else’s recklessness or carelessness, you can pursue compensation in civil court.
Georgia Has over 40 Public Lakes, and a Boating Tourism Industry to Match
Lake recreation is an important tourism draw for Georgia, and a favorite summer and weekend activity for many locals. Last February, 365 Atlanta Traveler posted a guide to 35 lakes in Georgia, touting the scenic views of Lake Juliette and the titular waterfalls of High Falls Lake. Lakes Online provides an even more comprehensive list of 46 different Georgia lakes, including smaller ones like Petit and Lucerne.
Most local and visiting boat-lovers crowd into a few favorite spots, however, with about 7.5 million visitors flocking to Lake Lanier each year, and another 7 million to Lake Allatoona.
Unfortunately, Georgia’s most popular lake hangout is also its most dangerous.
Lake Lanier Is so Dangerous, It Has a Reputation for Being Cursed
In spite of being only 7% busier than Georgia’s second most popular lake, Lake Lanier is twice as deadly, claiming an average of nine lives per year. This is at least in part because it was artificially constructed over trees and buildings that still act as hidden obstructions for swimmers and boaters.
There’s been no sign of improvement in recent times. In fact, in 2019, the death toll had already reached nine by early July. After local officials voiced their concern over the trend, three more visitors to Lake Lanier died as a result of accidents in that month alone. A little over a month later, a man backed his boat into a woman, severely injuring her leg.
Even with social distancing precautions in place, accidents on Lake Lanier have continued in 2020. Two men drowned there over Fourth of July weekend, one in a boating accident, one while swimming. Memorial Day weekend of 2020 saw three boating accidents on Lake Lanier, the same count as Memorial Day weekend of 2019, along with a dramatic uptick of boating under the influence cases.
In addition to the accidents that come accompanied by physical evidence and clear eyewitness accounts, Lake Lanier is also the site of frequent disappearances, stoking the belief that the lake is cursed or haunted. In reality, this man-made lake isn’t even old enough to have figured in the most popular ghost story associated with it, and there’s nothing particularly strange or inexplicable about people disappearing on a deep, murky, busy lake, laden with underwater hazards.
For example, two of those nine deaths from early 2019 were initially considered disappearances. Two boats had crashed into each other, and the driver and passenger of one boat were treated for their injuries — severe injuries, in the case of the driver. The driver and passenger of the other boat, however, seemed to have vanished. Their bodies were recovered over the course of the next week, but rescue crews had to use sonar and underwater drones to locate and retrieve one of them from a patch of tree trunks 54 feet below the surface.
It’s no wonder that the bodies of some of Lake Lanier’s victims have never been recovered, especially those who disappeared before search technology had advanced to its current level.
Georgia’s Other Lakes Are Safer, but Not Safe
Though statistically less dangerous than Lake Lanier, the average 4.5 deaths per year at Lake Allatoona shouldn’t be dismissed either. Any crowded lake where boaters are in close proximity with swimmers and each other carries a potential for injuries and deaths, and visitors need to be aware of this.
Less crowded lakes can also be dangerous in their own ways, partly because of the difficulty of summoning help quickly, and partly because of the greater anonymity less responsible boaters feel with fewer witnesses around.
Lake Sinclair is quieter than many, primarily frequented by locals and fishing enthusiasts. Yet in the summer of 2020, an 11-year-old girl was practicing with her new jet ski within eyeshot of her mother, when two men on jet skis of their own maneuvered too close to her, one of them colliding with her and knocking her into the water. One of the men — it’s not clear whether it was the same one who hit her — stopped long enough to help her out of the water and into the boat of a bystander, but then both men left without identifying themselves. The girl was left with a broken leg and fractured pelvis.
Lake Oconee also has a problem with careless, negligent boating accidents. On July 13th, 2019, a passenger on Lake Oconee was thrown from a boat and struck by its propeller. He was taken to a hospital where he died of his injuries. The man operating the boat was intoxicated.
In December, another boat struck a fisherman on Lake Oconee, knocking him into the water. He was able to make it to shore under his own power and survive, but he had to be treated for hypothermia. The at-fault boat operator fled the scene.
Earlier in 2019, a young man disappeared on Lake Oconee after taking his jet ski out alone. So far, no body has been found. There’s no telling what happened to him, or whether it may have been the result of an accident with someone who has decided not to come forward.
Boating Is Just as Serious a Responsibility as Driving, and Both Should Be Done Sober
Boaters have a duty to avoid posing an unnecessary hazard to others. That means being familiar with their crafts and with safety best practices, paying attention to their surroundings, and refraining from intoxicating substances.
As one can tell from the fatal accident on Lake Oconee and multiple alcohol-related accidents on Lake Lanier, alcohol and boats are a dangerous combination. Georgia law recognizes this, though arguably not as vehemently as it should.
Boating while noticeably impaired by alcohol, or any other substance, is a misdemeanor for a first or second offense. A third offense is a high and aggravated misdemeanor, and a fourth is a felony. Georgia law enforcement is authorized to patrol lakes, administer tests, and make arrests for boating under the influence. However, boating infractions do not affect a perpetrator’s land driving record or privileges, even though the act of drinking at the helm of a boat is closely comparable to the act of drinking behind the wheel.
Because boating is a leisure activity that does not require the same training and testing as driving a car, people tend to take a more casual attitude toward it. They perceive themselves as being in a nonthreatening, low-stress environment, and so they feel comfortable taking risks that they wouldn’t in another context. Often, that includes drinking, and even when it doesn’t, boaters may not pay as much attention to swimmers and other boats as they would to pedestrians and other cars.
As a result, many of the same kinds of accidents that kill and maim people on the roads repeat themselves on the water, with the added problems of longer stopping distances and harder-to-investigate accident scenes.
The reality is that getting into a boat carries the same dangers as getting into a car, for others as well as oneself, and therefore the same responsibilities.
Boaters in Georgia Are Not Required to Carry Insurance, but Many Do
For people 16 an older, the only requirement for operating a watercraft in Georgia is a valid form of ID. Adolescents 12 and older can operate crafts less than 16 feet in length with either adult supervision or a certificate of boating education. Children under 12 can operate boats under 16 feet and under 30 horsepower, though only with adult supervision.
The state of Georgia does not require anyone to carry boating insurance, but many banks and marinas require it in order to finance or store a boat. Auto and homeowner’s insurance companies often offer boating insurance as a low-cost add-on, so boat owners can easily cover themselves in case of liability or damage to their own vessels.
If you’ve been injured by an insured boater, then covering your medical expenses is literally what that insurance company is being paid for. However, insurance companies will rarely pay the full amount they owe without a fight, so you will probably need legal assistance to get full compensation.
Similarly, if you were injured by an uninsured boater, but you yourself are insured against uninsured boaters, you may need help getting your own insurance to cover your losses as they are obligated to do.
What to Do After a Boating Accident
If you’ve been involved in a boating accident, your first steps should be much the same as they would be after a land traffic accident, but with consideration for the particular dangers of your environment.
- Remove survivors from immediate danger and make sure everyone is accounted for — This includes getting out of the path of traffic and getting anyone who was thrown into the water back into the boat, onto the shore, or onto the sturdiest floating object available if the boat has been destroyed. Getting out of the water is especially important for anyone not wearing a life jacket. Be aware of your own swimming abilities, and do not risk your own safety to perform a rescue if a more qualified swimmer can do it instead. Otherwise, you risk adding yourself to the number of people in need of rescue.
- Assess medical needs and call for any needed help — Check yourself and others involved in the accident for obvious injuries, and have the most qualified and able survivors perform first aid for those who need it. If anyone urgently needs further care, call for emergency services. If not, everyone should be examined at their earliest convenience.
- Exchange information and document the damage — Gather names, contact information, and insurance information (if applicable) from everyone who owned or was operating any of the boats involved, and distribute it to everyone involved. If possible, also gather the contact information of witnesses and take pictures of the damage. At a minimum, review your own memory of events and prepare to write them down when you have the opportunity.
- File a report — If anyone has gone missing, been killed, or been injured badly enough to need medical attention, Georgia law requires you to file a report with the Department of Natural Resources within 48 hours. If there is only property damage and/or very minor injuries, the grace period for reporting is extended to five days. If there are no injuries at all and the property damages amount to less than $2,000, reporting is not required by law, but it’s still a good idea to establish a record of what happened.
- Seek legal assistance — Once the previous steps are taken care of, your next concern should be finding qualified legal counsel, to protect yourself and ensure your compensation will be fair.
The Stoddard Firm has experience helping accident survivors establish the truth about their accidents, their injuries, and the legal duties of the individuals and insurance companies involved. To get started with a free consultation, give us a call at 678-RESULT or reach out through our online chat function.