Broadly speaking, “negligence” is a breach of a duty owed to someone, where that breach causes an injury or where the victim suffers some other form of harm. The “duty” is evaluated by how a reasonably prudent person would act under the same circumstances, and this is often established by a statute or regulation, or by the customs and practices of people who participate in a particular activity.
In the context of a personal injury claim, negligence is often found where the injury was caused, in whole or in part, by the failure to adhere to a safety standard, practice or regulation.
Our reader was advised by an attorney that “maritime law” does not apply on an inland lake, but it is actually more accurate to say that an inland lake is not subject to federal maritime jurisdiction. “Maritime law” may be defined as a set of legal rules, concepts and processes that relate to navigation and commerce by water. “Jurisdiction” is the right and power of a court regulatory agency to interpret and apply the law, and “federal maritime jurisdiction” generally exists on bodies of water that are navigable to the ocean or that cross over state lines (such as Lake Havasu or Lake Tahoe).
It is true that the inland lake described by our reader does not fall within federal maritime jurisdiction, and, as such, the tour boat in question will not be subject to Coast Guard inspection applicable to vessels that carry passengers for hire.
Since the state of California has enacted very few laws concerning the operation of these boats, passenger vessel operation in California state waters is almost completely unregulated. This does not, however, relieve the owners of the boat from their duty to operate a safe vessel.
As noted above, negligence is evaluated by how a reasonably prudent person would have acted under the same circumstances, and this test will be used regardless of whether the boat was subject to federal maritime jurisdiction. In this case, we would need to evaluate whether the standard of care applicable to the operation of the boat would have required the crew to take steps to prevent our reader from falling into the open hatch. This standard of care may be derived from a wide range of sources.
Regardless of whether the Coast Guard has jurisdiction to inspect a vessel, Coast Guard regulations may be used to establish a “standard of care” for the safe operation of a vessel if a reasonably prudent person would follow those regulations under the same circumstances. And, notwithstanding that California has enacted very few laws relating specifically to the safety of passenger vessels, other state and local regulations may be applicable.
For example, the California Supreme Court has held that workplace safety standards enacted under Cal OSHA are in place for the benefit of anyone who is legally present at the workplace. For the purposes of OSHA regulations, a vessel operated as a tour boat is deemed to be a “workplace,” and those regulations do, in fact, require an open hatch in a floor to be guarded by a barricade or attended by someone who can warn people of the hazard. Our reader may therefore take advantage of workplace safety regulations to establish the negligence of the boat owner.
The standard of care for the boat owner, in our reader’s case, may also be established by the custom and practice of owners and operators of other boats that are used for a similar purpose. If a reasonably prudent person on a similar boat would have taken steps to protect someone from falling into the open hatch, then the owners of this boat may be found negligent, even if no specific laws or regulations were violated.
Negligence is very difficult to evaluate without knowing all of the relevant facts and circumstances, so this discussion is intended only as a general overview of a maritime personal injury case. As always, an experienced maritime attorney should be contacted for questions regarding a specific case.