Congress has amended the Limitation of Liability Act to remove “Small Passenger Vessels” from its protection. The amendment, passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, will make it more difficult for vessel owners to limit their liability in accidents that cause death or injuries.
The Limitation of Liability Act was enacted in 1851 to protect shipowners from financial ruin in a maritime accident. The law allows shipowners to limit their liability to the value of the vessel and its cargo. However, the amendment to the law now excludes “Small Passenger Vessels”.
The amendment was prompted by the 2019 Conception fire, which killed 34 people. The Conception was a small passenger vessel that caught fire while anchored off the coast of California. The fire quickly spread, and many passengers were trapped below deck. The owners of the Conception were able to limit their liability under the Limitation of Liability Act, even though they were found to be negligent.
A “Small Passenger Vessel” in the United States, is defined as a vessel that is less than 100 gross tons and carries more than six passengers for hire but fewer than 150 passengers or fewer than 49 passengers overnight. This includes vessels that are chartered with the crew provided or specified by the owner or the owner's representative and vessels that are chartered with no crew provided or specified by the owner or the owner's representative.
- Sightseeing boats
- Dinner cruises
- Charter boats
- Fishing boats
- Water taxis
What does this mean for passengers?
Previously, the law potentially allowed vessel owners to limit their liability to the value of the vessel and its cargo, even if they were found to be negligent. With “small passenger vessels” removed, the Limitation of Liability Act amendment means that passengers on such vessels will now have a better chance of recovering damages if they are injured or killed in an accident.
Review the law and amendment