In the waters of Puget Sound, the Columbia River, Washington coast, Oregon coast, and Alaska, whale watching excursions, sporting fishing trips, and other commercial boating tours are popular with tourists and recreational fishermen. People come from all over the world to see the beauty of Northwest waters. Unfortunately, these excursions can be dangerous if proper safety measures are not taken by the vessel operators. A vessel operator has a legal duty under maritime law to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries to passengers on its vessels. This includes adopting procedures to limit access to certain areas of the vessel in heavy weather conditions and to limit the speed of the vessel while traveling through heavy seas or wave conditions.
On March 21, 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a marine safety alert to operators of passenger vessels that allow passengers to ride in the bow during heavy weather. The alert followed several injuries to passengers on a whale-watching excursion. The passengers were injured while standing in the bow pulpit of a 106’ inspected whale watching vessel while it was underway. The vessel encountered a large wave and the bow of the vessel rose out of the water and then came down hard. As the vessel came down, several passengers standing in the bow pulpit area were thrown, resulting in injuries.
The U.S. Coast Guard alert recommended that operators of passenger vessels should give proper verbal warnings to passengers concerning unfavorable weather conditions. It was further recommended that if vessel owners were going to allow passengers to ride in the bow or pulpit area of the vessel, written policies should be established by the companies for vacating the area when weather or operational conditions presented risk of injury. The written policies should address the weather conditions, sea state, the speed of the vessel, and specific safety instructions to passengers concerning the special hazards of riding in the bow and/or bow pulpit area. Because weather conditions in the open ocean can change quickly, allowing passengers to ride in the bow pulpit area may be considered an unsafe practice depending on the circumstances. An operator of a vessel should always give warning to passengers when large waves are encountered and give the passengers time to grab onto the vessel to prevent falls and injuries.
If you or a family member are injured on a whale-watching or commercial boating tour, you should obtain immediate medical attention for your injuries and contact the U.S. Coast Guard to report the incident. Because the company or operators of the vessel may later try to blame you for the incident, you should obtain the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of any witnesses involved. If possible, you should make note of the position of the vessel, the weather conditions, and the sea state. If you are able to take photographs of the scene or conditions that existed at the time of the incident, those photographs may be important to the investigation at a later time.
In addition, some companies attempt to limit liability for injuries to passengers in the ticket they sell you. The limitations may be included on the ticket itself or written on signage where you purchase the ticket. After an injury, you should immediately read your ticket or obtain a copy of the ticket so that you can show the ticket to an experienced maritime lawyer. Because these limitations can be upheld by courts, it is important that legal action be taken within the time period prescribed in the ticket in order to protect your rights.
Like any maritime accident, an early investigation into the facts surrounding the injury are critical in getting to the root cause of the incident and a successful prosecution. Most experienced maritime injury attorneys work on contingent fee and offer a free consultation. If you want to know your rights following a boating injury, you should contact a maritime lawyer as soon as possible so that a careful investigation can be undertaken to determine the facts.