What determines the liability of a vessel owner?

Earlier this month, a tragedy unfolded on a California diving boat known as the Conception, as a fire broke out on the ship and killed 34 people on board. The owners of the ship wasted no time making legal preparations as they filed a petition less than a week after the incident to eliminate their financial liability in the fire. They’ve been heavily criticized for attempting to limit the legal options that the victims’ families have so soon after the fire.

The ship’s owners are primarily relying on the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 to avoid paying millions of dollars in damages. It’s been relied on for vessel owners for centuries for accidents smaller and larger than the Conception’s. However, there are a few exceptions within the law that could determine if the boat owners are guilty or not. It is important for maritime workers to familiarize themselves with the law so they know if they can or cannot rely on it after a major incident.

The ship’s condition

In the event that there is a fire on board, the Act states that vessel owners are not responsible for the damage unless the fire was caused by poor maintenance on their part. When shipwrecks occur, investigators are quickly sent to the site to check the remains of the ship to see if there were any signs of negligent care that led to the accident.

The workers

If the boat owners have inexperienced and poorly trained staff operating their ships, then they could be found liable for any injuries or deaths that occur. Some of the early investigations of the Conception boat fire indicate that there was no night watchman that would have kept an eye on the ship and warn their coworkers and the other passengers about the fire quickly. Even if the ship’s owners were not present at the time of the incident, the lack of safety precautions for their crew members can be used against them.

The goods

The liability of a ship owner that transports goods depends on if they were aware of what they were carrying. If whoever sent the item did not provide the carriers a written notice of what they are shipping, then the vessel owners are not liable.

If you have any further questions on how vessel owner liability works, contact a local maritime law attorney that can help you understand the Limitation of Liability Act.

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