Get Compensated for Colorado Boating Accident Injuries

Jon Topolewski
By: Jon Topolewski
PublishedApr 24, 2024
11 minute read

Boating is a wonderful pastime, especially on Colorado’s waterways with all the breathtaking scenery. Unfortunately, a delightful day on the water can turn into disaster within seconds. Accidents causing serious injury or death do happen. Collisions, capsizing, or incidents of falling overboard are often the result of someone’s recklessness, inexperience, or intoxication. In many cases, the victim is not even at fault. Has this happened to you? Here is how you get compensated for Colorado boating accident injuries.

Bottom Line:

If you’ve been injured due to another’s negligence, you deserve compensation. However, getting a payout after a boating or water vessel accident is not a guarantee. A good boating accident injury lawyer will improve your chances of a better settlement.

In this Guide:

If you've been injured due to another's negligence, you deserve compensation. A good boating injury lawyer will improve your chances of a better settlement.

A Guide to Colorado Boating and Waterway Accidents 

You hardly need a map to know there’s no coast of Colorado. Still, the Centennial State is well-known for outdoor activities, including a variety of watersports. Residents and visitors alike enjoy boating in scenic lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. Activities range from fishing, boat-racing, and jet skiing, to simply relaxing on tranquil waters.

Splashing in the Rockies 

Popular lakes and waterways within easy driving distance from the Front Range include:

  • Boyd Lake
  • The Chatfield Reservoir
  • Grand Lake
  • Lake Granby
  • Lake Pueblo
  • The Cherry Creek Reservoir
  • The Horsetooth Reservoir

This list is far from exhaustive. Further out from the Denver metro area, Colorado has the Blue Mesa Reservoir (Gunnison), Bear Creek Lake (Lakewood), the Twin Lakes (Leadville), Jackson Lake (Orchard), Lake Nighthorse (Durango), and both the Colorado and Arkansas Rivers for canoeing and rafting enthusiasts.

Boats on Colorado Waterways 

In Colorado, motorized or sail-powered watercraft on public waters must be registered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, with some exceptions:

  • Human-powered vessels (canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, rafts)
  • Boats with valid U.S. marine documents
  • Foreign vessels temporarily using state waters
  • Properly registered boats used in Colorado for under 60 consecutive days
  • Non-resident racing boats near authorized events

State law mandates registration for:

  • airboats
  • motorboats
  • tugboats
  • wave runners
  • sailboards
  • jet skis
  • watercraft
  • powerboats
  • large and small yachts
  • inflatable boats
  • diving boats

Having registration means also displaying an expiration date decal on your boat or watercraft.  — Colorado Revised Statutes 33-13-103

Frequent Types and Causes of Boating/Waterway Accidents 

The five most common types of boating accidents that occur on lakes or reservoirs are:

  • Collisions: This includes collisions between boats, collisions with fixed objects (such as docks, rocks, or other structures), and striking submerged objects or debris.
  • Capsizing/Swamping: When a boat becomes unstable it can fill with water and become partially submerged, roll onto its side, or completely overturn.Passengers could fall overboard, or worse, get stuck under the boat while underwater.
  • Falls Overboard: Passengers can accidentally go overboard due to sudden movements, loss of balance, or other factors. Falls overboard can lead to serious injuries or drowning.
  • Grounding: When a boat runs aground or strikes the bottom of the lake or reservoir, it can not only damage the vessel, but injure jolted or thrown passengers.
  • Propeller Strikes: Propeller strikes can occur when a person in the water is struck by a boat’s propeller, often resulting in severe lacerations or injuries.

Other common boating accidents on lakes and reservoirs include:

  • fires and explosions
  • flooding
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • accidents related to excessive speed or reckless operation

Lots of factors may contribute to such disasters. The more common causes, of course, are:

  • operator error or inattention
  • intoxication
  • machinery failures
  • lacking or misusing safety equipment
  • overcrowding the waterways
  • poor weather conditions
Possible Injuries from Boating/Waterway Accidents 

Boating accidents can be as dangerous and traumatizing as car crashes. However, collisions on the water pose unique challenges:

  1. It is more difficult to move injured or unconscious victims to safety.
  2. Waterway accidents are harder to investigate.

The most common injury claims after Colorado boating and waterway accidents include:

  • broken bones
  • lacerations and deep cuts
  • concussions
  • whiplash
  • traumatic brain injuries
  • blunt force trauma
  • internal bleeding
  • disfigurement
  • burns and blisters
  • spinal cord injuries and paralysis
  • drowning

All these injuries can be serious, catastrophic, or even fatal — especially if the victim remains in the water too long before rescue.

If you suffer damage in a water vessel collision or accident, you can be compensated for:

  • Medical bills
  • Future medical treatment
  • Lost wages
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Property loss
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of enjoyment

What to Do After a Boating Accident 

After an accident, take these steps to minimize injury, protect your rights, and support a future claim:

  1. Reach safety on land or water and check for anyone needing immediate medical help.
  2. Call 911 or local authorities to report to the scene. If needed, make a distress call via radio or visual signals.
  3. Collect contact info from witnesses and involved parties, as long as you’re not in immediate danger. Photograph the scene and injuries, and preserve GPS data. Write down details while they’re fresh in your memory.
  4. File a required accident report for any injury or property damage. A police report is valuable evidence to establish negligence and strengthen your case.
  5. Consult a boat accident lawyer before speaking with insurers. Insurance companies often resist paying settlements, and will use anything you say to deny or minimize your claim.

Nobody expects to get injured on the water when they’re having fun. But it can happen, and complex boating laws make pursuing injury claims a confusing, frustrating process. Fortunately, with the help of an experienced attorney, it can go more smoothly.

Seeking Compensation After a Boating Accident Injury 

Boating and jet-ski accidents are more difficult to investigate than automobile wrecks because there are no tell-tale skid marks on the water after a crash. Evidence can sink or even get washed away during rescue and recovery.

And yet … some form of negligence could be the cause of any serious maritime accident. Negligence is the failure to act with reasonable care, and it forms the basis for most personal injury claims. Once an investigation has revealed the likely cause, it will point to the culprit most responsible for your injuries.

Who Can You Hold Responsible?

You cannot bring an injury case seeking compensation without identifying the person or party responsible. Several parties could be liable, depending on the circumstances:

  • the boat operator who didn’t follow safe practices
  • an owner who lacked proper safety gear onboard
  • an operator/owner who collided with your boat
  • any negligent party, like reckless passengers
  • a boat rental company
  • a dock owner or worker
  • the boat manufacturer, if machinery failed or was defective

All of the parties listed above owe some duty of care to those around them. This applies even to dock owners, as one 1972 case demonstrated.

Hurst v. Crowtero Boating Club, Inc. (1972) (5)

A 13-year-old boy (Hurst) was struck by a motorboat while swimming in a boat launch area managed by Crowtero Boating Club, Inc. A dock worker saw Hurst swimming in the area but didn’t warn him of the danger. Hurst’s parents sued the worker and club for damages.

The trial court ruled for the club, saying the Hursts didn’t prove “willful or wanton misconduct” and that the club owed no duty of care to a non-paying member. On appeal, the Hursts argued the jury instructions on duty of care were wrong. The appeals court agreed and ordered a new trial. It said Hurst’s non-member status shouldn’t have been a factor:

The occupant, in the management of his property, should act as a reasonable man in view of the probability or foreseeability of injury to others. A person’s status as a trespasser, licensee or invitee may, of course, in the light of the facts giving rise to such status, have some bearing on the question of liability, but it is only a factor–not conclusive.” — Hurst v. Crowtero Boating Club, Inc. (Colo. App. 1972)

Operators of boats, jet-skis, and other watercraft have an even more pronounced duty of care. They must operate their vessel responsibly. When they don’t, they can be held responsible for any resulting injuries or fatalities if an accident occurs.

Proving Negligence After a Maritime Accident 

Personal injury matters in Colorado face not one, but two tests to determine negligence. First, there is the universal standard of prima facie negligence, which has four elements:

  1. The defendant (person being sued) owed a duty of care.
  2. The defendant failed to uphold that duty.
  3. The plaintiff (person bringing the suit) was injured, and
  4. The defendant’s failure to uphold their duty of care caused the plaintiff’s injury.

Groh v. Westin Operator, LLC (Colo. App. 2013)

The most crucial element is the first; showing that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care. It is not always an easy standard to meet.

For example: In Lopez v. Trujillo (Colo. App. 2016), a child ran into the road and was hit by a car after being startled by a fenced dog. The parents sued. However, the appeals court ruled for the dog’s owner, finding no duty of care owed to sidewalk pedestrians. The court deemed a startled child running into traffic an “unforeseeable danger” since the dog was fenced.

Comparative Negligence 

The second test in Colorado personal injury cases involves comparative negligence. This rule shares blame and payment when more than one person is at fault. If the injured party is partly to blame, their payment is cut by their share of the fault. For example, if they’re 20 percent to blame for an injury with $100,000 in damages, they get $80,000.

Colorado is a modified comparative negligence state. This means a plaintiff only gets compensation if they are less than 51 percent at fault.

This rule is used most often in automobile crash cases; however, it could apply in certain types of boating and waterway accidents.

Applicable Colorado Boating Regulations 

Comparative negligence would skew heavily against any boat or watercraft operator that failed to follow regulations. Many of the state’s boating rules and regulations are listed in Colorado Rev. Stats. 33-13-101 to 33-13-116. Under Colorado law:

  • no person under the age of 16 can operate a vessel on public lakes or waterways (14- and 15-year-olds who have obtained and can show a Boating Safety Certificate are allowed) — Colorado Senate Bill 23-069
  • no intoxicated person (0.08 blood-alcohol concentration or higher) can operate a watercraft  — R.S. 33-13-108.1
  • any accident causing injury, death, or at least $500 in damage must be reported to police
  • it is a Class 2 misdemeanor for anyone to operate their vessel in a reckless or imprudent manner — R.S. 33-13-108 (3)
  • vessel operators must reduce speed to a minimum in fog
  • individuals are prohibited from operating personal watercraft, such as a jet ski, between one half hour before sunset and one half hour before sunrise — R.S. 33-13-108 (1) (a.5)
  • power-driven vessels must stay clear of sailing, disabled, or fishing vessels — R.S. 33-13-108 (2) (a) (III)
Holding Commercial Boating Companies Accountable 

Private companies that use boats and watercraft can absolutely be sued if their carelessness causes injury. Businesses operating watercraft are responsible for their safe operation and for employing competent staff. Under respondeat superior, which means “let the master answer” in Latin, victims can sue employers for damages caused by their employees.

You can also hold water vessel manufacturers accountable for defects that cause serious accidents. Defective boat parts can cause serious accidents like:

  • flooding
  • collisions
  • capsizing
  • explosions or fires

Problems often involve rudders, throttles, steering, electrical systems, batteries, and navigation equipment. Boat owners should check their vessels before each trips. Even so, manufacturers are liable for defects that result in danger.

Damages and Compensation in Boating Injury Cases 

Boating accidents can lead to severe injuries, lasting pain, and emotional trauma. These can result in hefty medical bills, lost income, and property damage. Money can never buy back the time you lose while trying to physically recover. Still, an aggressive boating accident attorney can make sure you’re compensated financially.

With a successful settlement or judgment, you can recover from economic and non-economic damages.

Economic Damages 

Economic damages are expenses you can add up on a calculator. They include:

  • Current and future medical expenses: Depending on your injuries, you may need long-term care and physical therapy.
  • Property damage: You can be compensated for damage to your vessel, your dock, or the loss of personal items. These can include your watch, your smartphone, visual or hearing aids, and more.
  • Lost wages: Certain injuries make returning to work difficult or impossible for a while. You can be reimbursed for lost pay and diminished earning potential.
  • Present and future accessibility needs: Your costs are covered if you require a wheelchair and/or ramps built at your home so you can get around.

A thorough assessment of the injury’s full economic impact is all important. Your lawyer can  gather and total up your receipts.

Non-Economic Damages 

Non-economic compensation is also a vital part of recovery. Serious injuries do not cause only financial hardship. They can lead to short- and long-term personal and emotional challenges that any judgment or settlement must address.

Economic damages are easy to add up. However, it’s difficult to quantify the impact of sudden life changes on your mental and emotional well-being.

Non-economic damages compensate you or your loved one for:

  • physical and mental pain and suffering
  • inconvenience and/or disability
  • emotional distress
  • scarring and disfigurement
  • reduced quality of life

Note: Colorado law caps non-economic damages. No personal injury plaintiff can receive more than $613,760 in non-economic damages alone. The cap can be exceeded only when clear and convincing evidence shows that an increase is justified.  — Colo. Rev. Stats 13-21-102.5 

The cap is adjusted for inflation every few years. It was last updated on January 1, 2022.

Wrongful Death Compensation 

If a loved one dies or drowns in a boating accident, surviving family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit. This type of action aims to compensate close family members for their losses.

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the family can seek economic and noneconomic damages for:

  • funeral and burial expenses
  • loss of financial support from the deceased, if they were a parent or provider
  • loss of service, training, and affection

Building a Boating Accident Injury Case 

In order to receive a proper settlement, it’s important to show you truly deserve it. You want as much information as possible backing up your claim. This applies in every matter, but it’s especially important in boating and watercraft matters.

I’ve mentioned one reason for this already: Accidents occurring on bodies of water are harder to investigate. Police officers are well-practiced at spotting tell-tale clues at car crashes. But it takes a boating accident specialist to reconstruct and interpret a water vessel crash.

The Power of Expert Witnesses 

Accidents on lakes and rivers can have several causes, such as human error, mechanical design, weather, or water conditions. The success or failure of a personal injury lawsuit can hinge on very specific details. An expert with a background that matches your case’s details is crucial for a successful outcome. You need an attorney who is in contact with such specialists.

In addition to medical doctors and law enforcement personnel, experts who will be key to winning your case include:

Accident Reconstruction Specialists 

Boating accident reconstruction experts can spot the role of human factors and/or mechanical design in water vessel mishaps. These experts understand boats and they interact with different kinds of wind and water. Recreating an accident’s circumstances can help identify the cause.

Mechanical Engineers 

Boating lawsuits frequently involve mechanical and engineering issues, including defects or missing required safety equipment. Engineers must follow specific rules and regulations when designing and building boats to ensure safety. All types of aquatic vehicles should be optimized for safety and equipped with safety devices.

The Greed of Insurance Companies 

Here’s a disconcerting fact: Many insured boaters won’t have the coverage you will need if you’re injured on the water. Some homeowners policies in Colorado have a clause or two about boating accident protection. Unfortunately, this token coverage — sometimes only $1,000 — doesn’t go very far.

Even if the at-fault operator has actual boating accident insurance, you should be wary. Insurance companies love collecting premiums, but are less enthusiastic about paying claims. The at-fault boater’s insurer also has a duty to defend their client. For this reason, they may hire their own lawyers and investigators to contest your claim, or minimize the payout.

What About Your Own Insurer? 

Be cautious. Your provider may deny valid claims based on loopholes and technicalities written into your policy. For example: Your $45,000 powerboat runs aground, damaging the bottom. You submit a claim, but it’s denied due to a technicality involving safety equipment unrelated to the accident. In Colorado, this could amount to insurance bad faith.

However, the insurance company might not be based in Colorado. Due to federal maritime laws — and a recent United States Supreme Court case — your insurer could fight your lawsuit in a friendlier jurisdiction.

SCOTUS Allows Insurer to Avoid Bad Faith Lawsuit 

In Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Raiders Retreat Realty Co., LLC (U.S. 2024), that exact scenario played out. The Supreme Court decided that U.S. maritime law, not state law, applies to a case where a German insurer denied a claim from a Pennsylvania boat owner.

The policy had stated that either maritime or New York law, both friendlier to insurers, should govern. The boat owner’s $300,000 claim for accident damage was rejected because they had falsely stated they updated the fire extinguishers. This ruling highlights the importance of understanding and following the legal terms in maritime contracts.

There’s also another takeaway: If you or someone you care about gets hurt in a water vessel accident, don’t just contact an insurance company. Get a lawyer.

Statute of Limitations in Personal Injury Cases 

You have a limited amount of time to file civil action once you’ve been injured by another’s negligence. A statute of limitations establishes how much time you have to sue the party at fault.

There are two reasons for a statute of limitations to bring lawsuits:

  1. To preserve evidence and witness testimony, and
  2. To be fair to potential defendants. They should not have to defend themselves against claims from the distant past.

If you wait too long to hold an at-fault party accountable for your injuries, you risk having your entire case dismissed.

Colorado Deadlines 

Generally, in Colorado, the statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits is two years (C.R.S. 13-80-102(a)). However, it shrinks to one year if an injury was caused intentionally, through assault, fraud, or false imprisonment.

The clock starts ticking on the day the claim has been accrued. That is either the date of the incident or injury, or the day the plaintiff discovered the injury and incident.

Get Representation in Your Boating Accident Injury Case 

If you or someone you love is facing an uncertain future due to injuries and crushing medical bills, you have legal options. An aggressive, experienced personal injury lawyer will go after the at-fault party and get you the compensation you deserve. Call (303) 688-0944 for your case assessment.

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