What’s My Liability for Getting Bumped at a Mooring?

My boat was on a mooring in Catalina recently, when it bumped into the boat that was on the adjacent mooring. We were aboard at the time, and we did everything we could to fend off the other boat. Unfortunately, the crew of the other boat was ashore and the boats eventually came together. Both boats were slightly damaged, and now the owner of the other boat is threatening to sue me. He claims that, since he picked up his mooring before we arrived, we were “legally responsible to not hinder or harm the previously moored vessel.” Is this correct?
The owner of the other boat is misguided. There is no specific regulation that requires a moored boat in an established mooring field to avoid “hindering or harming” a previously moored vessel. Liability in this case will be determined instead by traditional rules of maritime negligence, and the damage will be apportioned between the two boats according to their respective degree of fault.

The owner of the other boat may be thinking of a traditional cornerstone of anchoring etiquette, which requires a new arrival to a harbor to stay clear of previously anchored boats. But this “rule” applies to anchoring, not to boats on adjacent moorings. And, a breach of etiquette does not always translate to legal liability.

Negligence, whether ashore or afloat, is evaluated by comparing the behavior of the respective parties involved in an incident to a “standard of care” that is expected of people who are engaged in the activity that led to the incident. The standard of care is frequently established through the testimony of expert witnesses with experience in the industry or activity in question.

Expert witnesses may rely upon a wide range of factors, including safety regulations (if any exist), custom and practice for participants in the activity, and the standards adhered to by participants in comparable activities. They may even rely upon established “etiquette.”

The evaluation of whether a person failed to act according to a standard of care, or whether that person was negligent, rarely leads to a finding that one person or another was entirely at fault. In a maritime negligence lawsuit, a judge or jury will evaluate the evidence presented by both sides to allocate liability between the parties,based upon an evaluation of each party’s “comparative fault.”

In the case described by our reader, many factors could have led to the incident.  For example, an extremely low tide may have caused excessive slack in the fore and aft mooring lines. The Avalon Harbor Patrol warns boaters to monitor their mooring lines to keep them properly adjusted. Or, a shift in the wind and tide may have created a temporary circumstance that brought the boats together for a brief period of time. Or, the mooring anchor blocks may have dragged during a storm, bringing the moorings closer together, in which case the Harbor Department may bear some of the responsibility for the incident.

In the end, this issue will be resolved by evaluating whether either of the boat operators could have done anything to prevent the incident, and if so, whether those steps were taken. It’s likely that the boat owner who was not aboard may bear most of the responsibility for the damage, unless he can show that he took reasonable steps to secure his boat before he went ashore. Regardless, in a case such as this with minor damage to both boats, the parties would be well advised to resolve this dispute before it gets out of hand.

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