Are Boating Anglers Liable for Injuries Caused by a Trolled Fishing Line?

On a recent trip to Catalina, we were motoring our inflatable dinghy outside of the moorings, but fairly close to the harbor. Another boat passed in front of us, and we noticed at the last second that they were trolling a fishing line behind them. The monofilament line was almost invisible. I grabbed the line to lift it over our heads as we passed barely underneath it, but the line was so tight that it sliced deeply into my hand. The injury required stitches, and I am left with tendon damage. Do I have any recourse against the fishing boat? I was under the impression that the Rules of the Road require fishing boats to display certain shapes during the day as well as lights at night, but there was absolutely no hint that these guys were fishing until the line was literally on top of us.
I always like to address questions like this by providing a short answer before getting into some of the boring details. Here, the short answer is that the offending vessel, in this case, was not required to display any “day shapes” — but they may nonetheless be found liable for our reader’s injuries.            

All boaters are aware (or at least they SHOULD be aware) that the “Rules of the Road” require certain lights to be displayed under way and at anchor. Boater may not be aware that many of these lights must be supplemented by the display of certain shapes during daylight hours. Requirements for the display of lights and shapes aboard different types of vessels are provided in Part C of the Rules, ranging from Rule 20 to Rule 21.            

Fishing boats must comply with Rule 26. Rule 26(c) provides that “a vessel engaged in fishing, other than trawling, shall exhibit two all-round lights in a vertical line, the upper being red and the lower white, or a shape consisting of two cones with apexes together in a vertical line one above the other.”            

In our reader’s case, the offending vessel was trolling a monofilament fishing line behind the boat. As such it was “engaged in fishing other than trawling,” which would seem to require compliance with the rule described above. However, like so many areas of legal analysis, we need to see if there are any exceptions to the rule. And in fact, Rule 3(d) defines the phrase “vessel engaged in fishing” to mean “any vessel fishing with nets, lines, trawls or other fishing apparatus which restrict maneuverability, but does not include a vessel fishing with trolling lines or other fishing apparatus which do not restrict maneuverability.”            

So, the Rules do not require the boat encountered by our reader to display any special shapes or lights (which I know is a relief to the entire sportfishing world). But that does not let them “off the hook” (sorry — I couldn’t resist).            

All of us owe a duty to those around us to act reasonably, to avoid harming those around us. We are “negligent” when we breach that duty to act reasonably, and we can be held liable for the harm caused by our negligence.            

In a maritime context, a boat (and its operator) will usually be found negligent for any damage done by its wake. This can even extend to damage that occurs outside of “no-wake zones.” Our reader’s case will be viewed in a similar light.            

The offending vessel, in his case, was trolling through an area adjacent to a crowded harbor on Catalina Island. He had a duty to act reasonably — and under those circumstances, this duty would have included staying away from other boaters and/or warning them about the line behind them.            

Determination of liability for maritime injuries often requires a review of applicable navigation rules, as well as an analysis of whether the parties were negligent without regard to specific rules or regulations.            

Regardless, all boaters should be versed in all of the Rules of the Road. The International and Inland Navigation Rules were formalized in 1972 in the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (commonly called COLREGS), and they are available online, as well as in hard-copy form at any marine supply store.


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