Over the summer a duck boat in Missouri capsized and sank, killing 17 passengers. Certainly you remember this heartbreaking interview of one of the survivors, Tia Coleman, who lost nine family members that day including her husband and three children.
This woman is now being sued by the operators of the boat that killed her family. Yes, you heard that right. You may be appalled – we are as well – but we are not surprised. In Maritime Law, this happens all the time and we saw the writing on the wall.
The operators of the duck boat – Ripley Entertainment and Branson Duck Vehicles – have filed a Limitation of Liability claim against the survivors. If you can imagine this, that means, a few weeks ago Tia Coleman and other survivors got a knock on the door and were served with a lawsuit.
The Limitation of Liabilities Act was first passed by Congress in 1851. Its intention was to promote the development of an American merchant marine by limiting the losses of the shipowner in the event a merchant ship was lost at sea. Under that law, in some circumstances the shipowners liability can be limited to the salvage value of the vessel and freight, after the accident. Over the years courts have allowed all sorts of vessels (even a jet ski) to claim the benefits of the Act; thus it has become the go-to defense for vessel owners and operators after a maritime disaster.
Our firm is currently handling several maritime death and catastrophic injury claims involving crew members and passengers in which the shipowner is taking this approach. In all of these cases, the catastrophically injured seaman or the families of the passengers and crew members that were killed have been served with a complaint for Limitation of Liability by the shipowner, seeking to skirt financial responsibility based on a law that pre-dates the Civil War (let that sink in). To say it’s a slap in the face is an enormous understatement.
There are defenses against the Limitation of Liability Act and we use them on behalf of our clients. But there is only one way to eliminate this anachronism, and that’s an act of Congress. That means the legislation would have to pass in both the House and the Senate and then be signed by the President. In our current political climate, that is not a remotely realistic hope. Elections have consequences, and this is one of them. If this is something you would like to see amended, then go to the polls tomorrow and vote!