Lawyers’ Corner: Boat Launch Accidents in Overbeek v Fremont Ins Co

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Is a boat launch accident an auto insurance issue or is it covered by a person’s boat-owners’ insurance policy? The answer depends on the language of the insurance policies.

Knowing where to file a claim in a boat launch accident can be complicated. In the few feet between the road and the water, which policy applies depends on the language of the boat-owners’ insurance contract. In the unpublished case, Overbeek v Fremont Insurance Company, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the question of accidents that happen on the boat launch itself.

Serious Injuries Can Happen on the Boat Launch

James Overbeek hired John Matson III, of Matson’s River Shark Outfitters, to be his fishing guide on the Pere Marquette River. Overbeek and Matson drove to the boat launch in Matson’s truck, hauling the boat behind them on a trailer. Matson backed the truck and trailer onto the ramp and turned the truck off, but he accidentally left the vehicle in drive.

As Matson was lowering the boat into the water, it began to shift off-center. Matson pushed the boat back into position, but that caused it to descend quickly toward the river. He yelled to Overbeek to “set the break” on the truck. But as Overbeek reached in to grab the steering wheel, the vehicle door hit him and knocked him down to the ramp. His arm was then pinned between the truck’s tire and the ramp’s concrete steps, seriously injuring him.

Boat-Owners’ Insurance Language

Just like in auto insurance cases, benefits in boat accidents depend on the language of the person’s boat-owners’ insurance policy. Matson’s policy included a “Boatowners Liability Endorsement” that covers injuries and damage caused by the “ownership, maintenance or use of the boat, boat motor or trailer.” But that policy excluded injuries “resulting from transporting the insured boat(s) or trailer(s) on land.”

Matson had also added a second endorsement to his boat insurance, the “River Guide Charter Use Endorsement”. It extended coverage to “passengers while they are engaged in activities ashore that are a normal part of the chartered fishing trip” and “on-shore guide activities that do not involve use of the insured boat.” However, it excluded “Loss arising from the ownership, maintenance or use of any land motor vehicle…”

Boat Launches and Transporting Trailers

Fremont Insurance Company, the boat insurance company, said it should not be responsible for Overbeek’s injuries because it said the boat and trailer were being transported and launching a boat did not qualify as an activity ashore or on-shore guide activity under Matson’s policy. It was up to the Michigan Court of Appeals to decide whether the boat insurance would apply.

To make the decision, the court had to define “transporting” as used in the insurance contract. The court used the a dictionary definition:

“The verb ‘transport’ is commonly defined as ‘to carry, move, or convey from one place or another.’”

It said the verb was inherently transitive – “someone must have been transporting the boat or trailer from one place or the other.” The court said this required ongoing action.

“When the boat and trailer arrived at the boat launch, transportation ceased. The boat and trailer had arrived at the intended destination.”

A footnote provides a helpful analogy: a semi-truck driver and auto accident liability:

“Fremont suggests that the trailer was still being transported because it would be moved at a later point. Fremont’s analogy of the trailer being like a semi-truck stopped at a traffic light falls flat. A truck driver would not generally disembark from a truck stopped at a red light, as Matson disembarked from the truck to launch the boat in this case. The boat and trailer in this case were more like a semi-truck stopped at a facility to pick up cargo (with the driver engaging in tasks to accomplish that goal) before starting the next leg of its journey.”

The Intersection of Auto Insurance and Boat Insurance

Because the court found that coverage was appropriate under the base policy, it didn’t have to interpret Fremont’s policy of excluding loss suffered from the use of any land motor vehicle. But whenever a person is using a truck at a boat launch there is a necessary intersection between auto insurance and boat insurance.

Boat accident attorneys need to pay careful attention to the use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle connected to the incident. Any time there is a car involved in a boat accident, it can open up potential claims for PIP and Third Party auto accident claims. That can ensure that a client’s medical expenses and three years of lost wages and attendant care costs are covered without dipping into the benefit caps on the boat insurance. Where there are serious injuries, you may also be able to access the at-fault motorist’s liability insurance in addition to the boat-owners’ policy.

A boat launch accident falls into the gray area between auto and boat insurance. But depending on the language of the policy and the circumstances of the accident itself, your client could be entitled to more benefits than either policy alone.

David Christensen is a boat accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. If your client has suffered a serious boat injury, contact Christensen Law for a referral today.