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Dana Young: Florida’s boaters deserve consumer protections, too

As an avid recreational boat owner and sixth-generation Floridian, I know there’s no better way to enjoy our state’s spectacular waters than taking your boat out.

And I’m certainly not alone — Florida is home to almost 1 million registered boats, and every one of them has an owner who delights in our beautiful coastline and lakes. Unfortunately, the fun of boating can be spoiled when predatory companies take advantage of a boater in distress.

Many boaters pay for memberships with maritime salvage and towing companies in order to be covered for services like fuel delivery, towing and so on. But sometimes these companies seize on the opportunity to unfairly classify assistance as a “salvage claim,” a classification that lets them charge outrageous and unexpected fees based on the value of the boat, not on the value of their actual services. These fees can sometimes end up costing tens of thousands of dollars for what should be a relatively simple job.

Additionally, when basic assistance isn’t enough, some companies take advantage of arcane maritime law and choose to declare it a salvage situation.

Here’s the real shocker: Because the cost of assistance on the water isn’t disclosed up front, these companies can stick boat owners with costly salvage fees after the fact. This is a case of powerful companies preying on the vulnerable and unsuspecting — an act of modern-day piracy.

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As just one example, I recently met with a constituent who was charged $30,000 after one salvage company spent less than 10 minutes helping him pump some water out of his boat (in a nonemergency situation), and this is not an isolated incident.

To combat this unscrupulous practice, I have filed legislation that would provide added transparency and accountability to the marine towing and salvage business. The bill, which I filed with Rep. Shawn Harrison, requires salvors to give boaters a written estimate before providing service. That’s it. We are essentially taking the common-sense consumer protections Floridians have come to expect on land — from auto mechanics, for example — and extending them to our state’s boaters.

Situations like the one I described above underscore the need for more transparency in the marine towing and salvage industry. Our simple and straightforward proposal will provide boaters with the peace of mind that comes from knowing they’ll be able to see how much they will be charged — before any assistance is actually provided.

I want to make one thing clear: Most salvage businesses provide beneficial services to our boaters, ensuring their safety and keeping their boats afloat. However, there are some companies that exploit boaters and reap exorbitant fees for minor assistance.

These horrendous acts include charging thousands of dollars for nonemergency situations that should be simple fixes, like pumping water out of a boat or pulling a stuck vessel off a sandbar.

As a Florida senator, I take seriously my responsibility to help create a fair environment for Florida’s residents and visitors.

It’s time we put a stop to the undisclosed fees charged by some of these companies, charges that may far exceed the value of the service provided. When Florida’s boaters find themselves in trouble on the water, they deserve to know what they are facing.

I am proud to take a stand with my fellow boaters across our state and work to create a solution for these unjust acts. This legislation will give Florida boaters the clarity they need and the peace of mind they deserve.

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Sen. Dana Young represents state Senate District 18 in Hillsborough County and serves as chair of the Senate Health Policy Committee.

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