On Saturday, November 26, there was an explosion on a 24-foot cabin cruiser in Huntington Harbor that exemplifies one of the more common causes of tragedy in recreational boating; a gasoline leak resulting in an explosion and fire.
In a car, a gasoline leak can be dangerous, but the leaking fuel often drips outside the car where it is less dangerous. The solid hull and enclose engine space on a boat can concentrate the vapor from a case leak where a spark from the engine can trigger an explosion.
Because of the high risk of explosion from leaking gas on a boat, it is critical that boat owners rigorously follow boat builders recommendations for service and preventative maintenance. But sadly, they don’t. They fact that a boat is used infrequently lulls the unwary owner into complacency. “The boat had hardly been used” one regretful owner told me. That is no excuse for lack of maintenance. The marine environment is hard on boats, particularly on boats used in salt water. Having a copy of the boat builders maintenance recommendations and a relationship with a good marine mechanic is a requirement for the recreational boat owner, not a luxury.
For the eight passengers injured in that explosion, their problems are just beginning. If the injuries are serious, the lawyers for the boat owner or his insurance carrier will claim that California law prevents voluntary participants in a recreational activity from suing for damages, even when the explosion and injury were caused by the boat owner’s negligence. THAT’S WRONG! Under some circumstances, California law can be that harsh with respect to injuries caused by recreational activities, but California law does not apply to boating accidents in the ocean (or on any “Navigable Waters”). Instead, federal maritime law applies and federal maritime law has a “recreational activities” exclusion.
Another major hurdle for an injured passenger can be a Limitation of Liability claim by the boat owner. Under that maritime law doctrine, a boat owner and his insurance company can seek to limit its liability to the value of the boat after the explosion and fire that caused the injury. Or in other words, nothing. Limitation of Liability claims are common in recreational boating accidents which cause multiple injuries. The filing of a Limitation of Liability claim does not, however, necessarily mean the boat owner and his insured can escape responsibility. If it can be shown that the boat was “unseaworthy” or that the owner was actually negligent, Limitation of Liability can be defeated.
Recreational boating accidents can happen to anybody, but only an experienced maritime lawyer can effectively advise a an injured passenger concerning his or her rights.