As Spring arrives and the warm weather signals the start of another boating season, Georgia boat owners should bear in mind the need to be very careful about who they let operate their boats, due to Georgia’s vicarious liability statute for boat owners.
As with automobiles, a boat owner can be liable for the actions of someone else operating that vessel. By statute, Georgia law specifically provides that “the owner of a watercraft shall be liable for any tort caused by the operation of the watercraft, in the same manner and to the same degree as the owner of an automobile is liable for torts caused by its operation.” Thus, like automobile owners, a Georgia boat owner can be held liable for the negligent entrustment of his boat if he had actual knowledge that the person he allowed to operate it was incompetent due to age, experience, or physical or mental condition or has a known habit of recklessness, and that incompetence or recklessness was the proximate cause of an accident. Similarly, a Georgia boat owner can be held liable under the family purpose doctrine, which allows an injured party to recover from an owner who furnished a boat for the use and convenience of a family member residing in the boat owner’s household.
Although a car owner cannot be held liable for the operator’s negligence solely by virtue of ownership, a boat owner’s liability is broader. O.C.G.A. § 51-1-22 provides that:
The owner of a vessel shall be liable for any injury or damage occasioned by the negligent operation of the vessel, whether the negligence consists of a violation of the statutes of this state or of neglecting to observe such ordinary care in such operation as the rules of the common law require. The owner shall not be liable, however, unless the vessel is being used with his or her express or implied consent. It shall be presumed that the vessel is being operated with the knowledge and consent of the owner, if at the time of the injury or damage, the vessel is under the control of his or her spouse, father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, or other immediate member of the owner’s family. Nothing contained in this Code section shall be construed to relieve any other person from any liability which he would other have nor shall anything contained in this Code section be construed to authorize or permit any recovery in excess of injury or damage actually incurred.
The statue, which has been held to be constitutional, serves the valid state purposes of (1) protecting injured parties from judgment proof drivers; (2) putting the financial burden on boat owners who can best protect themselves by insuring the boat; and (3) discouraging owners from lending their boats to reckless drivers.
An owner’s liability is not entirely absolute, as he or she must have given express or implied consent to drive the boat to the person who caused the injury or damage. So, for example, in the case of Wallace v. Lessard, where the boat owner, Quattlebaum, had given another person, Tyson, permission to use the boat and told him not to let anyone else drive, but Tyson allowed Lessard to drive the boat, the Court held that Quattlebaum was not liable for the injuries caused by Lessard’s operation of his boat, because he had not consented to let Lessard drive the boat.
The presumption that immediate family members have express or implied permission to drive the owner’s boat means that this vicarious liability statute is applied more broadly than the family purpose doctrine. For the family purpose doctrine to apply, the negligent driver must be a family member in the owner’s immediate household. By contrast, under the boat liability statute, family members operating the owner’s boat do not have to live with the owner for the presumption of consent to apply, or for the owner to be liable for their negligence. Also, the boat owner will be held liable for the negligence of anyone, not just a family member, to whom the owner has given permission to operate his vessel.
Thus, the prudent boat owner should think twice before allowing someone else to drive his boat. Boat owners should also be sure to obtain a boat liability policy, as most homeowner and auto policies specifically exclude coverage for injuries and damages arising out of the operation of watercraft.