Carbajal, Bipartisan House Approve Maritime Liability Reforms Inspired by Conception Boat Fire

Changes to help eliminate sexual violence in the maritime industry and promote Coast Guard diversity also included in Don Young Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022

Washington, D.C. – Today, Congressman Salud Carbajal, Chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, joined a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives to approve maritime liability reforms that he first proposed in the aftermath of the Conception boat fire in 2019.

The reforms approved today as a part of the Don Young Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022 change an 1851 law that can prevent maritime accident victims and their families from receiving compensation from those responsible for the accident.

The measure passed today would require owners of small passenger vessels to be held legally responsible for damages in future boating accidents and incidents, regardless of the value of the boat. The period of time during which victims can file a claim will also increase from 6 months to 2 years.

Rep. Carbajal’s remarks on the measure on the House Floor can be found here.

This reform was first proposed by Congressman Carbajal and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) last year in their Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act.

“As Chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, I’m proud to see important reforms that I’ve fought for approved by a bipartisan majority of the House today – including long-overdue updates to maritime liability laws that have denied victims’ families compensation for wrongful deaths at sea,” said Congressman Carbajal. “This is an important change, inspired by the families of the 34 precious lives lost on the Conception in 2019, that will ensure families of future maritime accidents do not face the same antiquated laws when seeking the support they deserve.

“Unfortunately, in the course of bipartisan negotiations on this package there were some that felt that making this change retroactive for all past maritime accidents, as I had proposed, would go too far. I completely disagree with that line of thinking, especially when it comes to getting justice for victim’s families—but I believe fixing our laws for the future will be the best case for proving them wrong. Whether through the conference process or through additional legislation, I will continue advocating for this change to be made retroactive to enable restitution for the families of Conception victims that I have worked with and gotten to know over the past three years. I have pledged to them that I will keep fighting, and I will keep that pledge.”

“Earlier this week, new Coast Guard rules took effect to prevent tragic fires on passenger vessels, but that’s only part of the fight,” said Sen. Feinstein. “The next step is to modernize laws governing liability for boat accidents. Families of those killed in boat accidents like the 2019 Conception boat fire cannot receive compensation today because outdated maritime liability rules are based on a 170-year-old law. I’m pleased our bill will fix this problem in the future so families of victims can receive the compensation they deserve. I look forward to the bill moving ahead in the Senate as well.”

More information on the Don Young Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022 can be found here.

The legislation advanced today includes provisions to promote gender and ethnic diversity in the U.S. Coast Guard.

The legislation also includes provisions of the Safer Seas Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Rep. Carbajal that will better protect those in the maritime transportation industry from sexual assault and harassment.

These provisions include mandatory reporting requirements to the Coast Guard for any seafarer, master, or vessel owner with knowledge of sexual assault or harassment (SASH), improved protections for survivors and witnesses, and a clarification that the Coast Guard has the ability to deny, suspend, or revoke a merchant mariner credential to individuals who have been convicted of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

More information on the Safer Seas Act can be found here.

Other Conception­-inspired legislation authored by Rep. Carbajal and Senator Feinstein, the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, became law in January 2021. That bill focused exclusively on improving safety features in small vessels in order to prevent future tragedies.

Background on the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act:

The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 stipulates that the owner a vessel may not be held financially liable for any losses incurred as a result of the fire – including loss of life – because the boat had no value after it was destroyed.

This meant that the families of the 34 persons killed in the 2019 Conception boat fire could not seek damages from the boat owner in the aftermath of the accident.

In September 2021, Carbajal and Feinstein introduced the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act to reform the 1851 law. The measure was drafted in consultation with the Coast Guard and the Justice Department and with the support of Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA) from Ventura County.

“Following the Conception tragedy, I worked with Congressman Carbajal and Senator Feinstein to update our maritime safety laws for small passenger vessels, and I am pleased the Coast Guard has moved forward with implementation of the new safety law,” said Rep. Brownley. “However, we also must do more to ensure passengers and their families can recover just compensation for wrongful deaths and injuries that result from vessel owner negligence. I applaud the House’s passage of this important bill to address vessel owner liability, and I will continue to work with my colleagues in both chambers to get our legislation to the President’s desk.”

Rep. Salud Carbajal represents California’s 24th congressional district, encompassing Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and part of Ventura County. He sits on the House Armed Services Committee, Agriculture Committee, and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he serves as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.


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