SEACOR Moves To Limit Liability After Vessel Capsizes Killing 13
If you are unfamiliar with this story, here is a brief recounting of the facts. 13 are missing or dead, and several more suffered life-threatening trauma after a SEACOR vessel capsized in rough waters. The owners of the vessel insisted on sailing in dangerous waters because they wanted to get a specific job done quickly. The families of the missing or dead and the injured have filed lawsuits against the company SEACOR who they claim was negligent for greenlighting the sailing in dangerous waters.
In response, SEACOR has filed a Limitation of Liability Petition in federal court seeking to limit SEACOR’s liability to $5.67 million. The limitation petition stops all suits filed to date, prevents the filing of further separate lawsuits against SEACOR and requires that all claims against SEACOR be brought in limitation proceeding.
Understanding the maritime law
Maritime law is very confusing for lawyers who do not regularly practice in this area. It’s confusing, mostly, because it is based upon centuries case law, statutes and treaties, many of which do not reflect the realities of the current maritime work environment. One example of this is the Limitation of Liability Act which is brought by a shipowner in a situation like this to in an attempt to limit its liability to the total value of the boat plus freight, equipment, and whatever else. That means that the 13 families who lost loved ones and anyone else who was injured would end up having to split somewhere between $5.57 and $7 million.
Is SEACOR liable?
A vessel capsizing or sinking, is usually a good sign of negligence or unseaworthiness. The Jones Act places a duty of care on boat owners and operators to act responsibly/reasonably under the circumstances. The doctrine of seaworthiness requires that the vessel is properly crewed, the crew is properly trained and the vessel is properly equipped for the activity it is engaged in. Not only is capsizing or sinking a pretty good sign that someone was negligent, but it is a sure sign the vessel was unseaworthy.
In this case, SEACOR contends that the captain of the vessel was highly experienced. When he read the day’s weather forecast he compared that against the tolerances of his own ship and made the decision to sail. However, the families that lost loved ones claim that the weather forecast was bad enough the vessel should never have sailed and SEACOR should not have let it sail, regardless of what the captain thought.
SEACOR, nonetheless, contends that the capsizing was “unforeseeable” and a force majeure event. Force majeure events are more commonly known as “Acts of God”. The limitation action filed by SEACOR is an attempt to ensure that the plaintiffs cannot recover more than the value of the vessel plus freight.
Force majeure is a term commonly found in contracts. Such terminology can relieve one or more parties of their obligations under a contract if some unforeseen interceding happenstance makes it impossible to fulfill their end of the contract.
Whether SEACOR erred in allowing the vessel to sail, or whether this was an unforeseen freak weather event, either way, this will be an interesting lawsuit to keep an eye on.
Talk to a Miami Maritime Attorney Today
Miami admiralty & maritime lawyer Michael F. Guilford litigates cases on behalf of crew and passengers who have been injured on the high seas. Call our office today to learn more about how we can help!