An 1851 Maritime Law for a 2019 Boat Fire Case?

maritime law, boat fire

Source: Santa Barbara Fire Department

Thirty-four people are dead after a fire on a scuba dive boat off the coast of California.  Media reports say that wrongful death lawsuits are almost certain given the circumstances.  However, the owners of the boat are seeking to avoid liability by invoking a 19th century maritime law that shields vessel owners from liability.  The maritime law was famously used after the Titanic disaster despite so many passengers suffering maritime injury or death.

Maritime Fire Claims 34 Lives

The scuba diving boat Conception was on a  three day cruise to the Santa Cruz islands on September 2, 2019, when a fire broke out.  Thirty-three passengers and one crew member were sleeping when the fire began.  Law enforcement investigators say that the two exits, a stairway to the galley and an escape hatch, were likely both blocked by fire.

The only survivors from the shipboard fire were the captain and four crew members.  Recovery efforts were massive, and it took two days for all 34 victims to be recovered.  Also, authorities used DNA analysis to identify seven victims, a process most common in war zone relief efforts.

The victims range in age from 17 to 60.   Authorities believe all of the victims died due to smoke inhalation.  They include families on vacation, a teacher and his daughter, a diving instructor, and a marine biologist.  These were people who were passionate about scuba diving, and who died in the pursuit of an activity they truly loved.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. One survivor mentioned an electronic charging station, which is now a focus for investigators. It is not uncommon for ships to have charging stations and electronics. Furthermore, on a three day trip, it is likely passengers would want to charge their electronics.

The fire and the subsequent loss of life is almost unbearably tragic.  Wrongful death lawsuits  prompted by the fire are almost sure to happen.   Yet, the owners of the ship are hoping to minimize their financial responsibility by invoking the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851.

About the Archaic Maritime Law

According to Reuters, similar accidents that occur on land often result in settlements topping $100 million in damages.  But, when wrongful death occurs on the ocean, maritime law applies.  Any and all maritime injury or wrongful death lawsuits may potentially have to answer to the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851.

You may be surprised to find that a law of that age is still on the books and in used by a maritime attorneys today, but it is true.  The statute allows the owner of a vessel and its insurer to severely limit, or escape entirely, financial liability under certain conditions.  The law may be invoked for an accident on any waterway, whether for tugboats and barges in busy harbors or leisure boats on the open water.

When the owner of the ship, Truth Aquatics, invoked the statute they did so by filing a petition in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.  Under the law, the owner of a vessel can request that a federal court will exonerate them from damages or limit the damages to only the value of the post-accident value of the ship.

Truth Aquatics alleges that the vessel involved in the accident, the Conception, is now worthless.  The vessel burned to the water line before resting in about 60 feet of water.  They are seeking to avoid liability of any amount in connection with the untimely deaths of their 34 passengers.

Maritime Law Used after the Sinking of the Titanic

Though this maritime law may seem morally repugnant and financially motivated, ship owners have successfully used it to avoid liability in the past.  When the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, more than 1,500 people died.  The Titanic’s owner, White Star Lines, successfully invoked this law.

White Star Lines was able to limit its liability in lawsuits in the United States to the value of the lifeboats that survived the accident, a mere $92,000.

Successfully invoking this statute requires the ship owner to show that their actions did not cause the accident, or as 19th century maritime law phrased it, that the owner lacked “privity or knowledge” of the accident.  Owners who use this law attempt to provide evidence proving:

  • They equipped the ship properly
  • The crew had proper training
  • Crew members and leadership followed appropriate procedures.

In the case of the Titanic sinking, the ship featured all the latest technology and was famously considered to be “unsinkable.” White Star Lines successfully argued that they played no part in the captain navigating the ship into an iceberg.

How this Maritime Law Applies Today

In the modern day, the interconnectivity of global communication has undeniably increased owners’ roles in the day-to-day operation of their ships, and has therefore limited the potential to limit liability under the law.  Captains and crew leadership seek to obtain the owners’ approval with most major decisions.

Where the modern example of the Conception tragedy is concerned, the judge who hears the case will look for evidence that the owners had knowledge or some level of involvement in the accident.

The captain and four crew members were able to escape in an inflatable lifeboat.  They reportedly attempted to rescue the other passengers, but were unable to access the ship.  In this matter the Court will likely look into:

  • The crew’s competency, background, and education
  • The crew’s training
  • Firefighting equipment available onboard
  • The passengers’ training

Truth Aquatics’ claims the fire was not “caused or contributed to by any negligence, fault or knowledge” on their part.  To prove this claim, the company will have to show the accident was not caused by something they did or should have done.  When invoking this maritime law, owners will often try to blame the accident on a crew member.

Will they Get Away with It?

Though the statute is a valid maritime law, something about it appeals to the sense of justice.  Luckily, judges are usually reluctant to apply this law in high-profile accidents, especially those that involve tourists.

There is a high threshold petitioners must meet to successfully seek protection under this law.  But, that doesn’t stop ship owners from trying to benefit from its protections.  Just last year a fatal duck boat accident in Branson, MO claimed the lives of 17 people.  The owners sought to avoid liability using this same maritime law.

The judge in that matter has not yet ruled on their request to limit their liability.  Many of the victims’ families have settled rather than continuing to push through the trial process.  Owners usually seek settlements in high-publicized accidents like this to avoid the drawn-out process of trials.

In cases like this with tragic loss of life, owners usually want to stay out of the spotlight.  If they push too far, outrage in popular opinion might be enough to prompt Congress to revisit this maritime law.

Maritime Law and Your Legal Rights

Whether you work onboard a ship or are taking a vacation, maritime accidents can happen to anyone.  Ship owners and operators must follow safety guidelines and applicable laws to ensure the safety of those onboard.  Similarly, employers must ensure that maritime workers have proper equipment and a safe working environment.

Anyone who is injured while onboard a ship may find it helpful to contact a maritime injury lawyer to learn more about maritime law and their legal rights.  Maritime Injury Guide can assess your situation and determine if you have an actionable maritime injury claim.

Call Maritime Injury Guide to request a free injury consultation at 1-866-871-8422.  You can also email us for more information.