US Congress passes bill covering operators’ liabilities following passenger vessel accidents

The dive boat Conception catches fire near Santa Cruz Island in southern California on September 2, 2019. All but five of the 39 people who were on board perished in the tragedy. (Photo: Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)
The dive boat Conception catches fire near Santa Cruz Island in southern California on September 2, 2019. All but five of the 39 people who were on board perished in the tragedy. (Photo: Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)

The US House of Representatives recently passed the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act, a bill to reform maritime liability rules for small passenger vessel disasters.

US Democratic Senator from California Dianne Feinstein introduced the bill last year with Democratic Congressman Salud Carbajal in response to the 2019 Conception boat fire that killed 34 people.

The Feinstein-Carbajal bill updates an 1851 law that prevented maritime accident victims and their families from receiving compensation from those responsible for the accident.

The owner of  Conception was found to be at fault by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). However, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 stipulated that the owner 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 bill, drafted in consultation with the US Coast Guard and the US Justice Department, removes small passenger vessels from outdated liability rules and allows owners to be held legally responsible, notwithstanding the value of the boat.

"We originally drafted language to update maritime liability rules in the wake of the Conception boat fire because current law is fundamentally unfair to victims of maritime tragedies," Senator Feinstein said. "Basing current maritime liability rules on a law written in 1851 is ridiculous. Owners of small passenger vessels who are found to be legally responsible for damages should be required to make those payments."

The senator added that she expects to have the bill passed in the Senate and sending it to the president for signature.

Separately, legislation authored by Senator Feinstein and Congressman Carbajal, the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, became law in 2021 and was implemented earlier this year. This other bill focused exclusively on improving safety features in small vessels in order to prevent future tragedies.

The liability reforms passed by the lower house were included in the National Defense Authorization Act. That bill is scheduled to be voted on by the Senate soon and sent to President Biden for his signature by the end of the year.

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