Recently, I was consulted by an attorney and friend of mine regarding admiralty jurisdiction and potential defense strategies for the owner of a vessel involved in a serious casualty. One aspect of any such situation that should be thoroughly investigated from the outset – especially if the value of the vessel and her pending freight after the casualty is likely to be less than the potential plaintiffs’ claims – is the vessel owner’s personal involvement with the vessel and voyage.
The reason for this is that the provisions of the Limitation of Vessel Owner’s Liability Act, 46 U.S.C.A. section 30501, et seq., can potentially provide both substantive and procedural advantages to a defendant vessel owner who is without privity or knowledge regarding the underlying causes of the casualty. One such advantage would be the limitation of the vessel owner’s liability, if any, to the value of the vessel and freight after the casualty. As you can imagine, this could be very significant under the right circumstances. One such scenario which is often mentioned as an example is a jet ski crash causing serious injury or death where the owner is not the operator of the jet ski. The owner of the jet ski could petition the court to limit his or her personal liability to the value of the wrecked jet ski. Another potential procedural advantage is that the defendant could in most circumstances choose a non-jury federal forum rather than allowing the potential plaintiffs to file in state court and request a jury (Note: an important exception is the Single Plaintiff Rule).
Owners of vessels both large and small which are involved in a serious casualty should not delay in obtaining advice from a knowledgeable attorney regarding his or her potential rights and remedies under the admiralty law. Admiralty law in many respects rewards the diligent and disfavors those who fail to take action.
More next week on the Admiralty Docket. Until then remember that your rights and responsibilities may change as you approach the shore, and may God Almighty grant you pleasant sailing.