The rules for the waterways in South Florida are different than the rules of the road for driving. Under international maritime law, a boat captain of any size vessel on the ocean or inland waterways has ultimate responsibilty for protecting passengers from injury.

Captain’s legal responsibility

We have all heard legendary tales of sea captains remaining at the helm until the last passenger and crewmember has safely disembarked as the vessel sinks around him. While some of the cases of bravery are mythical, there are good legal and moral reasons why the skipper remains onboard.

In U.S. waters, sea captains may have legal right and reason to disembark before the last crew member, if the rescue vessel, for example, will require an experienced seaman and the captain is the best crewmember to protect passengers’ safety.

In most cases, however, the skipper of the vessel not only faces a moral responsibility to remain on board until all passengers and crew are safe (including stowaways), but a criminal liability, as well.

Civil liability

Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), boat owners of seagoing vessels, including inland waterways, are required by law to ensure that all crew and passengers onboard are aware of safety management procedures, drafted under the provisions of the International Safety Management (ISM) code.

SOLAS holds vessel owners liable for civil litigation in the event of personal injury, wrongful death and other claims for financial damages if the captain fails to meet his or her legal responsibility. This covers charter tour boats and privately-held yachts, as well as cruise liners.

Injured parties may certainly have the right to sue for damages against the boat owner under international maritime law, but may also be able to “pierce the corporate veil” and sue the captain and individual crew members for failing to meet their responsbilities under SOLAS, as well.

If it can be demonstrated through evidence that the captain failed to meet the legal responsibility to put passenger safety above his or her own safety, civil damages may be possible for negligence.

Make sure you have the right attorney

Maritime law is a complex set of U.S. and international laws. If you were injured in a boat or ship accident in the Tampa area, don’t talk to the boat owner or insurance adjuster until you understand your rights.