Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today applauded House passage of the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act, a bill to reform maritime liability rules for small passenger vessel disasters.
Senator Feinstein introduced the bill last year with Congressman Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) in response to the 2019 Conception boat fire that killed 34 people.
The Feinstein-Carbajal bill updates an 1851 law that prevented maritime accident victims and their families from receiving compensation from those responsible for the accident. Despite the fact that the owner of the Conception was found to be at fault by the National Transportation Safety Board, under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851,the owner 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.
The bill, drafted in consultation with the Coast Guard and the Justice Department, removes small passenger vessels from outdated liability rules and allows owners to be held legally responsible, notwithstanding the value of the boat.
“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,” Senator Feinstein said. “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.”
“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.”
Separately, legislation authored by Senator Feinstein and Congressman Carbajal, the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, became law in 2021 and was implemented earlier this year. That bill focused exclusively on improving safety features in small vessels in order to prevent future tragedies.
The liability reforms passed by the House today were included in the National Defense Authorization Act. That bill is expected to be voted on by the Senate soon and sent to President Biden for his signature by the end of the year.