Thirty-four people died when the Conception, a scuba diving boat, erupted in flames off the cost of California last week. And in what seems like a heartless move, the company that owns the vessel has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to limit its liability. The boat’s owners, however, may not have actually made the final decision to file the lawsuit, and the move is also a very common legal maneuver used in boat accidents.
Pre-Civil War Law
The Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 was signed into law in an effort to protect and encourage shipping. Remember, in the 19th century, there were no airplanes to fly goods from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other, so the main way to ship goods was by boat. In order to encourage companies to invest in shipping, the law was enacted in order to protect owners from being faced with massive liabilities should something go wrong at sea.
The law was obviously not intended in the way some choose to use it. For example, it has been used to protect the owners of vessels as small as jet skis from liability. However, it is a law that made sense at the time of its inception and, perhaps, can make sense in certain situations today.
The Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act essentially read that if the owner of the vessel was unaware of any defect or did everything he or she could do to keep the boat in proper working order, then the owner’s liability, should anything go wrong, would be limited to the value of the vessel after the incident.
In the Conception’s case, people are reacting to the optics and blaming the owner. Thirty-four people have died tragically and unexpectedly. The least this company could do is to give the families time to bury their loved ones before having to consider legal action. And consider legal action is exactly what they have to do now. Because, as a result of the company filing its lawsuit, the claimants, or victims, then have just six months to bring their own claims.
However, in many of these cases, it is not the owner who makes the decision to file the suit, but the insurance company. Obviously an insurance company’s first priority is to prevent the loss of millions of dollars. Insurance is about money, not people. But, let’s remember who the villain in this story is. It may not be Glen and Dana Fritzler, the owners of the Conception, but their insurance company.
In order to prevail, the Firtzler’s will need to show that their boat was equipped with properly licensed and trained personnel, and that they took every reasonable step to ensure the vessel was seaworthy.
It may seem like a dirty little trick to invoke a law from the mid-19th century to protect one’s wallet when so many people perished so horribly. But, maybe this will force Congress and state legislators to take another look at the antiquated law and reconsider its applicability to small, commercial vessels.