Could obscure law prevent families of Missouri duck boat victims from getting justice?

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says her office is drafting legislation aimed at improving safety on duck boats.

“We’ve had more than 40 deaths associated with duck boats since 1999, yet there has been little done to address the inherent dangers of these amphibious vehicles,” she said.

Seventeen people perished July 19 when a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., during a thunderstorm. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says he’s prepared to take “whatever action is necessary” to prevent another disaster.

The efforts of both Missouri senators are laudable. If Congress needs to intervene to prevent another duck boat catastrophe, it should move swiftly. And federal agencies involved in regulating the boats, including the U.S. Coast Guard, should be held to account for decisions.

But McCaskill and Blunt should not limit their review to the specifics of the accidents and duck boats in general. There are other provisions in federal law that should be examined, including the legal path for relatives of the victims.

It’s possible that compensation to the families who lost loved ones in the Branson duck boat sinking may be restricted. An obscure federal law — first passed in 1851 — could prove problematic.

It’s called the Shipowners Limitation of Liability Act. It was written to encourage development of a merchant marine by imposing limits on the losses of shipowners in a disaster.

Under the law, post-disaster claims are limited to the salvage value of the vessel and freight, if any. Owners are not liable for other losses.

It’s been used before. When the Titanic sank, owners of the ship sought protection under the act. Owners of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig also sought liability protection.

Some experts think a similar limitation might be sought for the duck boat’s owners. “Claims arising from personal injuries, deaths, fire, collisions … sinking, salvage and lost cargo are all subject to the Limitation Act,” one study found in 2006.

The law isn’t absolute. The boat owners must prove that they didn’t know about problems such as seaworthiness and safe operation issues. In the case of the duck boat, those questions remain decidedly unanswered.

But even a small chance that victims of the duck boat calamity might be barred from fully seeking justice is worrisome and unacceptable. Congress should use the accident to undertake a thorough review of the Limitation Act and consider changes or repeal.

No boat owner should escape responsibility for a disaster as a result of a law that predates the Civil War. Moreover, the statute was never intended to protect recreational vessels like a duck boat on a lake. It’s supposed to protect shippers on the high seas.

Court cases after disasters aren’t just about compensating victims for their pain. They also serve as a deterrent — a method to ensure owners and operators pay attention to the safety of their customers. Congress must work to make sure those safeguards remain in place and are strengthened if necessary.

 

This editorial first appeared in The Kansas City Star (TNS).