Recreational boating is a popular pastime during the summer months. New York has plenty of options for people who want to enjoy the water, from sailing on the Hudson River, to canoeing on the Finger Lakes, and jet skiing on Lake George. Recently, New York enacted a law requiring that anyone born after May 1, 1996 must complete a safety education course to operate a motorized boat in New York. But what you may not know is that a 19th century maritime law, created to benefit the interests of American merchant vessels, limits the liability of boat owners for personal injury claims occurring on navigable waters.
The Limitation of Liability Act
Matthew Ficarra, who was paralyzed after a recreational boating accident on an Oneida Lake, is attempting to recover compensation from the boat's owner. One hurdle he faces is the continued existence of the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, created to help American ship owners compete with foreign countries in the pre-modern insurance age of the merchant marine industry. Under the Act, an aquatic vessel owner, including recreational and passenger-carrying vessels, can limit its liability to the value of the vessel post-accident. Thus, if the vessel is badly damaged, the owner's liability to a personal injury claimant can be a very small amount. In Mr. Ficarra's case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the Limitations law applies to passengers who were swimming off a pleasure boat anchored in shallow waters on Lake Oneida.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over Limitations actions, which are governed by special procedural rules. The burden of proof begins with the claimant, who must show that the accident was the result of negligence or a problem with the vessel. The burden then shifts to the owner, who must "prove a lack of privity or knowledge of the negligence or unseaworthy condition which caused the accident."
The Liability Limitation Act is a serious, rarely-known aspect of admiralty law that favors the vessel owners over innocent, injured victims. In cases of serious personal injury or death, whether occurring on a personal watercraft, passenger boat or other vessel, it is important to contact an experienced attorney with a background in maritime law, to ensure that your legal rights are protected.