LOS ANGELES — Federal lawmakers have changed 19th-century maritime liability rules for accident victims and their families in response to the 2019 boat fire off the coast of Southern California that killed 34 people.
The Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act was included in the $858 billion defense spending bill that President Joe Biden signed Friday.
It updates the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, under which boat owners were able to limit their liability to the value of the remains of the vessel. In the case of the Conception, the scuba diving boat where an inferno trapped 33 passengers and one crew member in the bunkroom below deck off Santa Barbara three years ago, the boat was a total loss.
Now owners of small passenger vessels can be held legally responsible for damages in accidents and incidents, regardless of the boat's value afterward.
The final version of the law, sponsored last year by California Democrats Rep. Salud Carbajal and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is not retroactive and will not apply in the case of the Conception, one of the deadliest maritime tragedies in recent U.S. history.
“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,” Carbajal, who represents the area where the disaster occurred, said in a news release.
The 1851 law is a time-tested legal maneuver that has been successfully employed by owners of vessels from the Titanic to countless others, some as small as Jet Skis. It has its origins in 18th-century England and was meant to promote the shipping business.
A suit filed by the Conception's owners to limit their liability remains ongoing in federal court.
The Passenger Vessel Association, a trade group, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.