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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Boating Accident Case Allows Woman to Proceed in State Court

With the Fourth of July tomorrow, Jacksonville’s waterways will be busy with boaters. With increased traffic comes the increased risk of boating accidents – especially since many boaters seem to think driving while operating a boat is appropriate. A recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit Cour of Appeals highlights the complexities of boating accident injury cases.

In its decision, the United States Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals made an important ruling regarding maritime and admiralty personal injury cases. The Eleventh Circuit of appeals has apellate jurisdiction over cases originating in the federal district courts located in Florida.

The cases at issue originated from a boating accident that happened in October of 2011. A group was riding in a boat owned by a boat club. A boat club typically owns numerous boats and has many members. The members can reserve and use the boats for recreational boating.

On the day in question, the operator of the boat struck a large wake from another boat at a high rate of speed. The impact flung a woman passenger into the air. When she landed back on the boat, she suffered serious personal injuries.

After the women provided notice to the boat club of her intention to pursue a claim for her injuries, the boat club filed an admiralty limitation of liability act in federal court. Federal admiralty and maritime law allows the owner of a boat to limit exposure for injuries in a boating accident to the value of the vessel at issue. The approximate value of the vessel involved in this case was $95,000.00.

The admiralty limitation of liability laws are antiquated and especially out of place in the circumstances presented by this case. Nevertheless, the law stands and must be dealt with by any lawyer handling boating accident injury cases. After the initiation of the federal court action by the boat club, the injured woman’s lawyers sought to instead litigate the value of her case in state court.

Often, attorneys prefer to litigate personal injury cases in state court as opposed to federal court. This tends to be the case for several reasons. First, the ability to participate in who will be selected as jurors is extremely limited in federal cases. Further, in federal cases, expert witnesses that are going to be used at trail must provide detailed written reports. Any opinions not included in such reports will not be allowed at trial. This presents a mine field for a plaintiff’s attorney because at the time that the expert reports are to be produced, discovery is usually not complete and additional opinions may be necessary after additional discovery. In addition, as the defendant gets to disclose experts after the injured plaintiff, it gets the benefit of the plaintiff’s expert opinions before finalizing its own. It is much easier to include all necessary opinions upon first having the benefit of the plaintiff’s expert opinions.

Given that the woman involved was the only person making a claim for personal injuries as a result of the boat accident, the federal court allowed the women to proceed in state court. The owner of the boat appealed, claiming that the action should proceed in federal court. The single claimant provision falls under the “saving to suitors” clause of the admiralty statutes. The appellate court held that the federal district court had broad discretion in remanding the case to state court.

In the event the injured woman received a judgment for her injuries that exceeded the value of the vessel, the federal case would then be reopened for determination of the applicability of the limitation of liability act.

This case highlights the procedural difficulties and pitfalls in handling personal injury cases resulting from boating accidents.

Recently, our firm handled a case of a young woman injured in an accident involving two jet skis operated on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida. The two jet skis, both owned by the same defendant, collided. The young woman who was injured was driving neither of the jet skis and, thus, bore no fault for whatsoever for her injuries. Unbelievably, the federal limitation of liability act applies to jet skis, which were valued at less than $10,000.00. However, the defendant failed to file its limitation of liability action in federal court within six months of being notified of the claim. In so doing, it waived its right to limit the value of her case to $10,000.00. By demonstrating this procedural deficiency to the federal district court, we were able to proceed with her claim seeking the full value of her injuries.

If you are in need of a boating accident or admiralty lawyer for injuries or wrongful death occurring as a result of boating accident in Jacksonville Florida, or the surrounding areas, please contact us for a free consultation. We handle boating accident cases in the following counties: Duval, Clay, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns, Bradford, Union, Baker, Volusia and Flagler.