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San Diego Boat Accident Lawyer – Will a Limitation Action Sink Your Boat Accident Case?

Maritime law is the law of the sea. Maritime law is very, very different from California State law. One of the peculiar parts of maritime law is the Limitation of Liability Act. Under the Limitation of Liability Act, if certain factual prerequisites are met, a shipowner can limit its liability for a accident to the value of their vessel.

Stated differently, if you are seriously injured in a boat accident your recovery may be limited to the value of the boat that caused your injuries. Which, quite obviously, may result in you not being adequately compensated for your serious boat injuries.

The Limitation of Liability Act

The Shipowners Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, (“the Act”), may limit the liability of the owner of a vessel to the value of the vessel. This is a unique maritime principal. The Act limits a vessel owners’ liability for claims, arising from acts performed by a ship’s crew without the owner’s knowledge or privity, to the owners’ interests in the ship.

Meaning the value of the boat or ship and its cargo. If the ship’s value is insufficient to satisfy all claims, the Act provides for equitable apportionment among the claimants.

Vessel owners must either file a Limitation Action in federal court or raise it as a defense. Vessel owners must file a petition to limit liability in the appropriate federal district court within six months after a claimant notifies an owner of a claim. For purposes of the Act, the charterer of any vessel is deemed to be an owner.

A Limitation Action can literally draw your case into federal court. The proceeding is before the admiralty court. The Act provides for all claims against an owner to be aggregated and decided at one time. It prevents multiple claims against a vessel owner. Limitation actions are equitable proceedings.

“What Does This Mean To My Boat Accident Case?”

As a practical matter a Limitation Action can limit your claim to the value of the vessel that caused your injury. This may not be a problem with a cruise ship. It can be a huge problem with a PWC or a ski boat when there are serious injuries or death. The doctrine is very harsh and unfair. It is usually strictly construed.

The Limitation Act requires strict compliance. A proactive seasoned maritime attorney can sometimes defeat a Limitation Action before it is even filed. One way to defeat a Limitation defense is to marshal the evidence such that you can prove privity of the owner of the vessel. That is, the owner of the vessel knew or should have known of the vessel’s dangerous condition that caused the injury.

In a boat collision case, when the owner of the vessel is driving the vessel, then a Limitation Action would not apply in most, if not every, situation. Because the owner would have privity of the way he or she was commanding the vessel.

Limitation of Liability Act Case Studies

Mission Bay, San Diego – Boat Pulling Water Skier Collides With a Fishing Boat

The owner of a ski boat was water skiing while being towed by a friend. The friend was operating the owner’s boat. The ski boat was going the wrong way on Mission Bay, San Diego, California. The ski boat was not going in a counter-clockwise rotation. The boat operator was watching the skier and plowed into a small fishing boat, severely injuring three middle aged women.

The ski boat owner filed a Limitation Action. The Action was defeated because the owner of the vessel was being pulled as a skier and he could see that his friend was not following the proper counter-clockwise rotation on Mission Bay. Thus, he had knowledge of the acts that were a cause of the collision.

Mexican Waters – Passenger on a Charter Sportfishing Boat Slips Down Ladder

A passenger on a Charter Sportfishing boat was on a four-day fishing trip to Mexican waters. The passenger slips and falls down a steep ladder into the galley. The Limitation defense was defeated by proving the non-skid on the ladder had been worn smooth for months, if not years, before the passenger slipped on the Ladder Injury Claims. There was plenty of time for the owner to have learned of the dangerous condition before the injury incident. Thus, there was privity (i.e.,knowledge).

Catalina Island, California – Charter Sailing Boat Sinks Due to Electrical Problem

An electrical fire starts on a 54 foot Chartered sailing vessel while cruising off Catalina Island. The Captain and 11 passengers abandoned ship. Two of the passengers drown. Litigation discovery reveals months before the sinking, a mechanic had recommended fixing the electrical problem. The owner had try to conceal both the mechanic and the previous electrical problem. The insurance company settled soon after the concealment was uncovered.

Colorado River – Yuma – 16 Year Old PWC Operator Hits Teen on Inner Tube

A 16 year old is operating a personal water craft on the Colorado River, north of Yuma. The PWC clips a teenage girl floating on an inner tube. The teenage girl is seriously injured. The owner of the Jet ski did not require the 16 year old to read the manual nor the PWC’s riding instructions for novices. The owner had given the 16 year old less then 3 minutes instruction on how to operate the PWC before allowing the teenager to ride unsupervised. The insurance company for the owner paid the policy limits.


If you were injured or had a family member killed in a boat accident that occurred in navigable waters you need to expect and plan on having to defeat the Limitation of Liability Act. Your California maritime attorney should be proactive in planning for and defeating the Limitation Act defense.