Following the tragic loss of the Conception liveaboard—which caught fire off the coast of California in September 2019, claiming the lives of 34 people—US lawmakers have been debating new legislation to help prevent such disasters from occurring again. Congressman Salud Carbajal and Senator Dianne Feinstein (both of California) have been leading the charge, authoring the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, which focused on improving safety features in small vessels and became law in 2021.
But Carbajal and Feinstein didn’t stop there, introducing a new bill in September 2021 that changes an 1851 law that can prevent maritime accident victims and their families from receiving compensation from those responsible for the accident. That 172-year-old law limits compensation claims to the value of the boat, so if a boat is lost and effectively has no value, the owner of a vessel may not be held financially liable for any losses—including loss of life. The bill, called the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act, was drafted in consultation with the Coast Guard and the Justice Department and makes it possible to seek compensation, notwithstanding the value of the boat. It also increased the period of time during which victims can file a claim, from six months to two years.
However, not everyone is happy about the new liability requirement imposed on small vessel operators, which was included in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) says the new law threatens dive operators and their employees, and is urging people to reach out to their US House Representative and Senators, explain how Section 11503 of the NDAA is negatively impacting small vessel operators, and ask to have the liability requirement repealed.
DEMA says that “[c]hanging this liability limitation would likely benefit plaintiff’s personal injury attorneys but is unlikely to further improve small passenger vessel safety.” “Currently, owners of small passenger-carrying vessels, including owners of dive vessels, pay large fees for liability insurance. The current limitation to liability is factored into these insurance rates,” the organisation argues. “A change in this liability limit—targeted only at owners of small passenger-carrying vessels—will necessarily cause a substantial increase in liability insurance rates for these small businesses.”
It seems likely that the liability requirement will not be repealed, and dive operators using small passenger-carrying vessels as part of their dive business will have to brace for substantial increases in their premiums—perhaps with the additional costs being passed on to divers.
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