Carbajal: Maritime Liability Reforms Inspired by Conception Boat Fire on Track to Become Law this Month

As Chair of Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, Carbajal championed changes to 1851 law in wake of 2019 boating deaths off the Central Coast of California

Today, Congressman Salud Carbajal (CA-24) celebrated the House’s approval of a measure he championed to update maritime liability laws to help victims of boating disasters, a reform inspired by the 2019 Conception boat fire.

The Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act, first proposed by Carbajal and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), changes 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.

“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 disasters do not face the same antiquated laws when seeking the support they deserve.”

“We originally drafted language to update maritime liability rules in the wake of the Conception boat fire because current law is fundamentally unfair to victims of maritime tragedies,” said Senator Feinstein.  “Basing current maritime liability rules on a law written in 1851 is ridiculous. Owners of small passenger vessels who are found to be legally responsible for damages should be required to make those payments. That’s what our bill accomplishes, and I look forward to passing it in the Senate and sending to the president for signature.”

The measure was included in the final 2023 defense policy bill, which passed the House today in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote. The defense policy package which includes Carbajal’s measure was finalized in consultation with bipartisan leadership of both chambers of Congress, so it is expected to pass the Senate in the coming days and be signed into law by the end of the month.

Due to changes made to the bill prior to initial passage out of the House in March, the bill would apply to future liability claims once the measure is signed into law.

“Unfortunately, in the course of bipartisan negotiations earlier this year on our bill, there were some that felt that making this change retroactive for all past maritime accidents, as I had proposed, would go too far,” said Rep. Carbajal. As I have made clear since March, 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. I am actively exploring the pathway to building on today’s success by enabling restitution for the families of Conception victims that I have worked with and gotten to know over the past three years.”

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 incident.

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.

“We must ensure passengers and their families can recover just compensation for wrongful deaths and injuries that result from vessel owner negligence. I appreciate the good work that Senator Feinstein and Congressman Carbajal have done to advance the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act, and I am so pleased to see this important legislation advance to the President’s desk,” said Congresswoman Brownley.

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