Most people don’t think much about maritime disasters unless they go see a movie like Titanic. That hasn’t been true this week, though. Two U.S. maritime disasters on two different oceans have garnered great public attention.

The first was a horrible boat fire off the coast of California which killed 34 people. Apparently, the fire blocked the escape routes for dive boat passengers sleeping below decks. Only a few crew members who jumped from higher decks survived.

The second was a massive cargo ship capsizing near Georgia. The Hyundai ship, which transports thousands of cars, apparently caught fire and took on water as it left Brunswick. It then flipped on its side and partially sunk in the shipping channel. Coast Guard rescuers had to cut through the hull to free crew members trapped inside.

The legal fallout from the Hyundai vessel situation will be considerable, but the exact parameters of it remains to be seen. As to the California situation, the legal fallout is already beginning. That’s because Truth Aquatics, the owner of the vessel which burned, sued the families of the deceased passengers in California federal court.

That’s right. The owners of a vessel which burned and killed 34 people sued the victims of that fire.

The Dangers of Limitation Law

One might wonder why a vessel owner would be able to do this. The answer lies in one of the peculiarities of maritime law. Under maritime law, a vessel owner has the right to try and limit its liability to others after a marine disaster. To enforce this right, it actually sues those harmed by the disaster, rather than the other way around. The ship owner enjoys some tactical advantages, too: the case is brought in federal court, and the decision is made by a judge rather than a jury.

History of Maritime Limitation Law

This counterintuitive right was created by Congress in the mid-1800s, at a time when the U.S. was trying to encourage its shipbuilding industry. Limitation law is not well-known by the public, but it has been used many times. In fact, the owners of the Titanic used it after the ship crashed into an iceberg and sunk in the North Atlantic. It was invoked recently in the 2018 Missouri duck boat disaster that killed 17 people. It was even used, though unsuccessfully, in the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster (based on another surprising conclusion – that a drilling rig is a “vessel” rather than just a platform that floats).

Outdated Laws Have No Place in Today’s Courts

The limitation law is hopelessly obsolete in today’s world. Legal experts have criticized the law and called for its repeal for decades. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to act, perhaps because the law is so favorable to the insurance companies which now write insurance policies for watercraft.

If one good thing might come from the California boat fire, it would be a renewed call to repeal this antiquated maritime law. It arose from industry conditions which no longer exist, and it is grossly unfair to disaster victims and their families. It’s time for maritime law to reflect our priorities in the 21st century, rather than those from almost 200 years ago.

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