Personal Watercraft Injury – Is There a Case?

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Each summer, many Maine residents and tourists are injured by negligent use of personal watercraft (PWC). Known by such names as Jet Ski, WaveRunner and Sea-Doo, PWCs are relatively inexpensive and easy to operate. PWCs pose risks to health and safety in a variety of ways. Used properly, with proper training and supervision, they can be both fun and safe. Unfortunately, too often proper safety precautions are overlooked or ignored, resulting in catastrophic injury or death. To recognize whether Maine law can provide a remedy for someone injured or killed by a PWC, it is helpful to understand how they operate.

Fig. 1—Courtesy of American Boating Education

A rider sits or stands on the PWC rather than inside it like a boat. Many are designed for two, three or even four people. The configuration for operation is most akin to a motorcycle or ATV, with driver and riders straddling a seat or bench.

Mounted beneath the seat is a gasoline engine driving a pump jet. The pump jet turns a screw-shaped impeller that draws in water and pushes it through a pump housing. The pump housing contains a venturi that creates thrust for both propulsion and steering. Fig. 1.

At first glance, a PWC’s operational controls look very much like those on snowmobiles and ATVs. The operator sits or stands directly behind handlebars upon which a thumb throttle is located. Depressing the throttle lever with the thumb causes acceleration.

Fig.2—Courtesy of American Boating Education

Steering, too, is similar to a snowmobile or ATV—the operator turns the handlebars in the direction she wishes to go. These similarities with other familiar recreational machines is deceptive and even dangerous, because it hides two critical ways in which PWCs handle very differently than their land-based cousins.

First, PWCs do not steer like other craft. Turning a PWC requires the operator to apply throttle to keep water flowing through the jet. Turning the handlebars with throttle causes the PWC to turn. Fig. 2. When the operator releases the throttle, water stops flowing out through the steering nozzle and the PWC simply goes straight in whatever direction its hull is pointed. This is a frequent cause of collisions. Experience and proper training are the only ways to prevent crashes and serious injury.

Second, PWCs stop differently than land-based recreational vehicles. ATVs and snowmobiles provide one or more means by which the operator can slow or stop the machine. Both have hand levers and/or foot pedals that the operator depresses to activate braking in the form of drag. A snowmobile slows and stops because the brake inhibits the caterpillar tread from turning, creating friction with the snow surface beneath. An ATV slows and stops because the brake inhibits the wheels from turning, creating friction with the ground.

In contrast, most PWCs have no brakes. A PWC slows to a stop only due to the friction of water on the hull. There is no mechanism to increase this friction and thus slow or stop the PWC more quickly. Presented with a sudden obstacle or emergency, the operator cannot “slam on the brakes” as on a ground-based vehicle. Thus, slowing and stopping a PWC requires advance planning by the operator. The absence of advanced planning is the cause of many PWC crashes.

Vessel loading is another important factor in how a PWC handles. Many PWCs seat 2, 3 or even 4 people. The combined weight of riders can drastically change how the machine accelerates and turns. Similarly, the passengers’ positioning can be important. With more weight forward, there is a greater tendency for the vessel to plow or dive in swells or waves.

Fueling a PWC creates particular risks. Because PWCs look like sleek toys, it is easy to forget that they are driven by powerful gasoline engines. Gasoline fumes are highly explosive and special precautions are necessary to fuel an ATV safely. While many boats with inboard gasoline have electric blowers to vent gas fumes out during fueling, PWCs do not. Instead, PWC manufacturers rely on the operator to take certain steps to vent the hull during fueling, such as opening the cowl or removing the seat.

Lack of maintenance can create dangerous problems. PWCs sometimes sit for long periods of time, unused, after being run hard. The elements in which PWCs are operated and stored—wet and salty—are not kind to complex machines and gasoline engines. PWCs’ sealed hulls hide most of the components that require maintenance. Without regular inspection and preventative care, PWC components can fail, often with at least inconvenient if not dangerous consequences.

If a client comes to you with a potential case involving an injury associated with a PWC, ask the right questions to determine if it is a viable case. Was there a loss of control of the PWC’s movements, resulting in a collision? Was there an explosion or fire? If so, what was happening when it occurred? If the accident involves a collision, remember that loss of control can result from a number of factors. How experienced was the operator? Had she/he received any training or read the owner’s manual? Were instructions given from the seller, renter, or owner? What control inputs (i.e. throttle, steering) was the operator activating just before the loss of control? Was the PWC responding to these control inputs? If the PWC did not respond as expected, perhaps there was equipment failure due to lack of maintenance or improper repairs.

You will need to preserve the PWC in as close to its exact condition as it was immediately after the event occurred. Was there an investigation? Statements, observations, and conditions reported right at the scene or immediately thereafter will be very important in guiding your investigation. More information can come from photographs taken by friends or by the operators themselves using PWCs. Compact waterproof digital camcorders (Go-Pros) are increasingly common among PWC riders eager to preserve memories of their activities on the water. Find out if there is any recorded information that can help you help our client. Most importantly, act quickly to preserve as much evidence and information as possible.