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Boater liability - compulsory third party concept floated

by Jeni Bone on 22 Nov 2011
Boating is about fun, but there are hazards too. .. ©
A high profile case in the media across WA has shone the spotlight on the issue of compulsory third party insurance for boat owners, as lobby groups push for the state government to revamp laws to provide compensation for victims of boat accidents.

A Port Hedland teenager, Chantelle Schweikert-Norman, 19, was involved in an accident off Port Hedland last October in which she was thrown across a friend’s boat and sustained horrific injuries.

Ms Schweikert-Norman’s injuries were not covered by the boat’s third-party insurance policy because it only covered damage to property, not people. She needs $20,000 to pay for surgery.

Ms Schweikert-Norman has joined forces with Perth resident Kate Campbell, who was similarly injured in an accident in 2007, to use the media to speak out about their plight. The pair and their supporters are keen for a parliamentary inquiry into whether there should be a compulsory third-party insurance scheme to help pay the medical costs of people injured in boating accidents, similar to the scheme for motor vehicle accidents.

'We want this to go through because we know there are a lot of other (victims) out there but some of them haven’t got the voice or haven’t had the urge to get something pushed across,' Ms Schweikert-Norman said.

Ms Campbell, 23, was injured when a State MP’s son crashed his father’s boat into an unlit navigational marker south of Canning Bridge. She believes it’s ironic that boats are not covered by a third-party (person) insurance scheme, but the trailers used to take them to the water are.

Together, the women and their families hope to collect a petition of 10,000 signatures to have compensation laws changed and they are currently lobbying members of WA parliament.

The WA Department of Transport General Manager Marine Safety, David Harrod says that while the Department of Transport acknowledges discussions about the merits of introducing third party insurance, there are currently no plans to introduce such a scheme.

'There are more than 94,000 registered recreational vessels in WA and while third party insurance is not compulsory to register a vessel, it is available and is an option to be considered by individual boat owners.'

The BIA WA states that it categorically does not support any extra levy on boaters.

In a statement the organisation says it 'encourages all those who have boating insurance to examine their current policy and to speak to their insurers if they do not believe they have the cover they desire for their passengers'.

'As far as introducing compulsory third party insurance, there are a number of issues which would need to be addressed before any plans to introduce compulsory third party insurance could be contemplated, such as how would the scheme be made national, who would administer it and how much would it cost the individual boat owner?

'The BIAWA is always conscious of weighing up the cost imposts being placed on boaters and their real benefits to the majority of boaters. In this instance the BIAWA supports the Department of Transport position and will not seek the introduction of compulsory third party insurance for WA boaters.'

From the insurance industry standpoint, those in the business have seen the distress and duress which can result from claims against boat owners.

Mark Crockford, marketing manager Nautilus says that 'as an insurer, I would encourage boat owners to seek adequate cover to protect not just your boat, but to protect the boat owner for negligence, damage to property or injury to people'.

The issue is putting your own bricks and mortar on the line, he explains. 'There are a lot of boats out there that are not insured. People don’t understand, if you hurt somebody and impact their ability to work, it can equate to hundreds of thousands in lost income and that person is going to want it from somebody.

'Boat registration does not cover you for injury that you may do to other people. Society has become very litigious. People won’t hesitate to go to Court, chasing assets. For the sake of a couple of hundred dollars, you can cover yourself up to $10 million.'

But Crockford acknowledges that a compulsory system would be 'very hard to establish and gather support for'.
'If not compulsory, people should consider having third party as a minimum, then they have peace of mind if they damage property or cause injury to another person.'

Peter Ryan, National Underwriter for Club Marine agrees. 'Liability cover is a strongly recommended option, but should it be compulsory? That’s a vote for the community, not the insurance industry.'

As he explains: 'We see the consequences every day. It’s not fair on the uninitiated who might be out on a boat and not know the owner is uninsured. How would they know? It’s compulsory with cars. For the amount it would cost, compared to the peace of mind to protect the third party and the boat owner, it is a preferred option.'

Why is Sydney Harbour or any busy waterway different from our roads, Ryan ponders. 'If you have kids fishing, people on a boat ramp, a swimmer or somebody in connection with the boat who is injured, it comes back to the responsibility of the boat owner.'

Contemplating how a compulsory third party insurance fee system could operate, Ryan says that 'if it were compulsory, you would charge more for a high powered boat or jet ski than other types. But it’s something we haven’t even done a feasibility study on because we haven’t got the parameters.'

'It’s up to the government or state authority to make that call.'

In Queensland, Don Jones, Chief Executive Officer at Marine Queensland says the need for a third party-styled insurance 'may be difficult to substantiate'.

'It has been briefly canvassed at some recent coronial enquiries,' he says, adding that at this point, the statistical data does not support the need for this type of policy.

'Some of the issues in Queensland would include the need to further consider issues around operator licensing as well as vessel standards. Marine Queensland is increasingly of the view that vessel descriptions and licensing should have far stronger linkages to the types of waters that are proposed to be navigated, eg. smooth, partially smooth, etc.

'The forces for changes are coming from many and varied areas such as the Australian Consumer Law, Maritime safety requirements as well as general consumer sentiment and expectation.'
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