February 23, 2016

In the February 2016 issue of
Long Island Boating World
magazine, Tim covers issues of liability in an accident where a
boat that lost power attempts a landing at a marina dock. The
Docking Accident Explores Issues of Fault, examines the
difficulty in establishing fault when things move quickly in this
close quarters type of boating accident...

Although seasoned skippers may take pride in their close
quarters boat handling abilities with bow thrusters and twin
screws, many prefer staying far from crowded fuel docks on
busy Saturday afternoons. Some might compare the experience
to approaching checkout lines at a warehouse store before a big
holiday. Regardless of one’s seamanship skills, such tight
settings can be stressful. Together with the heightened level of
situational awareness required, there is risk of injury to crew
members, dockside helpers, and risk of damage to expensive
boats tied up nearby.

And if a large powerboat has to pull off a landing without the
benefit of its own power, that obviously makes things even more
difficult. This was the situation facing several friends returning
from an excursion on the Gulf of Mexico. The 40-foot boat they
were aboard ran out of fuel several miles from San Carlos Pass.
Subsequently, the vessel was towed to a marina by a
commercial towing service. After bringing the disabled boat in,
the towing vessel more or less “aimed” it toward the direction of
the dock. The commercial towing vessel turned away at the end
of the approach to enable the disabled vessel to cover the final
stretch under its own momentum.

An employee of the marina moved into place to assist the
incoming vessel. At some point, he lost track of where the
towline was. Soon afterwards, he found the bow of the 20,000
pound vessel looming in his face. Things moved quickly at this
point and some of the testimony varies as to exactly what
happened. But in the moments that followed, the dockhand’s
right hand was seriously injured when it was caught between the
incoming boat and a piling.

When the matter went into litigation, a federal court in Fort Myers,
Florida was faced with the difficult task of determining who was
at fault. The expert for the dockhand testified that the captain of
the disabled boat had a responsibility to handle the vessel safely,
as to the vessel itself and to the people involved. He added that
someone should have thrown a bow line to the employee during
the docking operation.

The plaintiff’s expert also expressed his position that there could
have been better communication between the disabled vessel
and commercial towing service. However, in its review of the
facts, the court deemed that the boat owner and towing service
captain had not been negligent in their conduct. Therefore, the
court ruled in their favor.

Observing the activities at a busy dock on any given weekend,
one sees that bystanders and employees alike often help boaters
land and cast off without thinking twice about the risks involved.
The skipper looking for a friendly face on the dock to whom to
throw a line today could return the favor by catching someone
else’s line tomorrow. People don’t generally think, “I wonder if
that boat I’m about to help has insurance, just in case anything
goes wrong.” They simply lend a hand because they’re helpful
employees or good neighbors.

But this case shows that if accidents do happen, it can be
difficult to look back and figure out exactly who was at fault.
Things move quickly. Everyone is concentrating on their own little
role in the operation, whether it’s manning the helm, throwing or
catching a line, fending off a piling, or keeping an eye on another
boat casting off. Maybe that’s part of the reason why captains
sometimes breathe a sigh of relief when they know a landing has
been executed safely and everyone aboard their boat and on the
dock is present and accounted for.

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