Biden recently signed new legislation to benefit victims of passenger boating accidents. It included updates to an 1851 law that limited what victims could recover from the liable party. The new legislation was inspired by the tragic accident that occurred aboard the Conception dive boat in 2019. It changes liability for vessel owners and helps victims get the compensation they deserve.
The Conception Accident and Limited Liability
The Conception was a 75-foot dive boat that caught fire and sank in 2019 off the coast of California’s Santa Cruz Island. The accident led to the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member from smoke inhalation.
The people who died were trapped by the fire in the berthing area. Both exits from that area led to enclosed spaces engulfed in flames. The smoke alarms on the boat were not connected, so the crew sleeping in another area did not immediately know there was an emergency.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated and concluded that the deaths were preventable. The operator failed to provide adequate oversight measures, including having a crew member patrolling the boat at all hours.
In spite of the assigned blame, the victims’ families were unable to recover damages in their wrongful death lawsuits. The owners of the boat filed a lawsuit to limit their liability based on an 1851 law.
Updating the Limitation of Liability Act
The 1851 Limitation of Liability Act (Limitation Act) was designed to bolster the U.S. shipbuilding and maritime industry. It included a provision stating a vessel’s owner could limit their liability to the value of the vessel and its cargo at the time of an incident.
This affected the victims of the Conception because the fire destroyed the boat, leaving it without value. According to the Limitation Act, the owners could then limit their liability in the accident to zero.
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Salud Carbajal of California introduced the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act in 2021. It passed in Congress and was signed into law by President Biden in 2023. The law updated the Limitation Act requires vessel owners to pay damages in full if they are found liable in accidents that cause death or injuries. It was part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Unfortunately for the families of the victims of the Conception, the law was not made retroactive. It only applies to vessels and incidents that occur in the future. Senator Carbajal is still looking for ways to get these families restitution, but it will not come from the owners of the Conception.
The updates to the 1851 law represent important improvements for a victim’s ability to seek justice and compensation after a maritime accident or injury. The maritime industry is fraught with risks, but many accidents are preventable. When someone is liable and causes harm to passengers, the victims now have a better chance of recovering the damages they need and deserve.