What is a Limitation of Liability Act filing?

Dennis Sullivan

Dennis Sullivan is a shareholder with Stepp & Sullivan, P.C. in Houston. His trial practice has an emphasis in civil litigation, including representation of individuals injured by the negligence of others, including catastrophic injuries and those injured in aviation and maritime accidents.
Dennis Sullivan

Recently, the Owners of the dive boat CONCEPTION filed what is known as a Limitation of Liability Act lawsuit as a result of a catastrophic fire onboard.[1]  The questions most people have are what is a Limitation of Liability, and why would the Owners file a lawsuit.  This type of suit, filed by the dive boat owners, can be traced back to a law first implemented before the Civil War.  This law, first passed in 1851, allows the boat owners to limit their damages to the value of the vessel after the casualty.[2]  Essentially, the CONCEPTION’s owners have filed a lawsuit which attempts to protect them from paying damages for the untimely deaths and injuries that resulted from the fire.  Boat Owners file a Limitation suit after casualties so they can attempt to avoid taking responsibility for the incident.

The Limitation of Liability Act is a measure used by boat owners to avoid paying damages if they can prove that they had no “privity or knowledge” of the cause of the incident.[3]  An owner has privity or knowledge of a cause of the incident when the owner knows, or should have known, of a condition which caused the incident.

The injured parties must first show that the owner was negligent in the incident.  In the case of the CONCEPTION matter, the parties will develop evidence as to the cause of the incident and resulting injuries and deaths.  Once the cause of the fire is identified, and any and all negligent acts are identified, the owners will be required to prove that they had no knowledge concerning the conditions that caused the fire, and injuries and deaths.

If the Owners are found to have knowledge of, or should have had knowledge of any negligent condition that caused the fire, and/or any negligent conditions that caused the injuries and deaths, the Owners attempt to avoid paying damages should fail, and Owners will be required to face the total damages that have been incurred as a result of the tragic deaths and injuries of the passengers and crew of the CONCEPTION.

Boat Owners are not entitled to Limitation if they had knowledge of acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness that caused the accident. Owners are not entitled to limitation if the boat was unseaworthy, had an incompetent crew or had faulty equipment onboard and these issues resulted in the incident.  Further, if the Owners had knowledge that there was no safe means of escape or any other circumstance that caused the tragedy, they should not be entitled to Limitation.

The CONCEPTION’s Owner’s Limitation suit forces all claims to be filed in the Court where the Limitation Act is filed, in the CONCEPTION’s case, in the United States District Court Central District of California.  This means that the injured parties must file a claim and suit in the court where the boat owner chose to file.  While the claims can eventually be allowed to proceed in a court where the injured parties want to proceed, such requires a lawyer to have knowledge of how the Limitation Act works.

Finally, once a Boat Owner files a Limitation Act lawsuit, the standard statute of limitation, or that time period when a claim must be filed, is drastically shortened.  If any claim is not filed in this shortened time frame, the claim may not be allowed.  The Owners of the CONCEPTION have requested that the Court order all claims be filed no later than February 1, 2020, or, just 4 months after this tragic incident occurred. [4] As a result, if anyone has a claim which arises out of an incident where the boat owner has filed a Limitation Act suit the claim must be acted upon as soon as possible in order to protect all the rights you may have.  In the case of the CONCEPTION, the Owners have asked the court to require all claims be filed in just 4 months, after which, no further claims will be allowed.  In order to fully protect oneself in limitation proceedings if you have a claim, you should consult a Maritime attorney who has experience in Limitation Act suits.

Stepp & Sullivan, PC is a maritime law firm, with extensive experience in Limitation Act suits, and has experience in handling thousands of claims filed in Limitation Act suits during the past 35 years, including claims from crewmembers, passengers, and bystanders.

[1] In Re Truth Aquatics, Inc. and Glen Richard Fritzler and Dana Jeanne Fritzler, Individually and as Trustees of the Fritzler Family Trust DTD 7/27/92, as owners and/or owners pro hac vice of the dive vessel CONCEPTION, Official Number 638133  2:19-cv-07693; United States District Court Central District of California

[2] 46 U.S.C. 305 et seq.

[3] Id.

[4] In Re Truth Aquatics, Inc. et al; 2:19-cv-07693; United States District Court Central District of California; ECF 13, Proposed Order Restraining All Suits

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