New US bill proposes reforming liability for maritime accident compensation

Photo credit: Ventura County Fire Dept
Photo credit: Ventura County Fire Dept

A bill has been introduced before the US Congress designed to reform the 170-year-old regulation that limits compensation for maritime accidents. The effort is being led by California’s Congressman Salud Carbajal and Senator Dianne Feinstein and has been written to be retroactive to cover the 2019 fire aboard the dive boat Conception, which killed 34 people off the California coast.

The Carbajal-Feinstein bill updates an 1851 law that can prevent maritime accident victims and their families from receiving compensation from those responsible for the accident. Under the terms of the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, boat owners can limit their liability to the value of the vessel after the accident. The sponsors of the new bill said according to the current legislation the owner of the Conception dive boat may not be held financially liable for any losses incurred as a result of the fire – including loss of life – because the boat had no value after it was destroyed. The Conception was declared a total loss after the 2019 fire.

“Two years ago, the Conception boat fire took 34 precious lives. The victim’s families are currently being denied compensation for those wrongful deaths because of an antiquated and unfair law,” said Rep. Carbajal. “I am proud to work with Senator Feinstein to right this wrong and help the victims’ families get the compensation and justice they deserve.”

The bill introduced on September 22, which was drafted in consultation with the Coast Guard and the Justice Department, would require owners of small passenger vessels to be held legally responsible, including by requiring compensation, notwithstanding the value of the boat. The bill would retroactively apply to the Conception tragedy.

“The families of those who perished in the tragic Conception boat fire have filed claims against the owners of the boat for violating federal safety rules, but they may not receive any compensation because of a 170-year-old law that doesn’t account for modern tourism such as commercial dive boats,” said Senator Feinstein. “Our bill would fix this egregious oversight and allow the families to receive recompense from the boat’s owner.”

While the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 applies to all maritime accidents regardless of the size of the vessel, the new bill entitled the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act specifically targets only the smaller “T-boats” Rep. Carbajal and Senator Feinstein also authored the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, which became law in January 2021. That bill focused on improving safety features in small vessels to prevent future tragedies.

Civil and criminal actions are still pending against the captain and owner of the dive boat that burnt during the early morning hours of September 2, 2019, off the coast near Santa Cruz Island, California. While the National Transportation Safety Board did not identify the cause of ignition of the tragic fire which killed 33 passengers and one crew member, it cited clear deficiencies in the vessel, its design, and equipment. The captain of the Conception, Jerry Boylan, pleaded not guilty to federal manslaughter charges. Two years after the fire, the families of the victims filed a wrongful death suit against the U.S. Coast Guard accusing them of a failure to perform its roles to properly inspect and certify the vessel.

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