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Here in South Florida, pleasure boating and the use of Jet Skis (I use the term “Jet Ski” generically) are part of the experience of living in our great state. It is important for pleasure boaters to become aware of the issues involvingJet Ski accidents and limitation of liability statutes. While Jet Skis are certainly “pleasure crafts” to most people, the Eleventh Circuit has ruled that Jet Skis are vessels (The term “vessel” is defined in 1 U.S.C. § 3 as “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”) in which the maritime limitation of liability statute would attach and limit recovery of damages after a collision to the value of the vessel after the accident. To put this into perspective, the average cost of a brand new Jet Ski is $10,000 to $13,000. Therefore, if you are injured by a Jet Ski, through no fault of your own, the maximum recovery for your injuries would be $10,000 to $13,000. This sum could certainly be far less than what your injuries would total.
Congress enacted the Limitation of Liability Act in 1851 to promote investment in the domestic commercial shipping industry. The Limitation Act restricts the financial liability of a ship owner to the value of the vessel and its freight when the vessel is involved in an accident caused without the ship owner’s “privity or knowledge.” In other words, the value of the vessel and freight (if any) is the limit that will be paid to the party who was injured as a result of the accident. In its original form, the Limitation Act expressly stated that it did not apply to “any canal boat, barge, or lighter, or to any vessel of any description whatsoever, used in rivers or inland navigation.” However, in 1886, Congress amended the Act to extend its application to “all sea-going vessels, and also to all vessels used on lakes or rivers or in inland navigation, including canal-boats, barges, and lighters.” Therefore, currently the Act applies to all vessels. Likewise, following the Act’s amendment in 1886, one district court stated that “the evident purpose of the amendment was to make the statute applicable to all vessels, irrespective of the purpose to which they are put.” As one court put it, “[T]he weekend sailor is as privileged to limit liability for damages committed by his yacht as are hard pressed commercial owners for those by their multi-tonnaged merchantmen plying their trade across the crowded shipping lanes….”
The modern trend, while critical of the Act, nevertheless follows the application of the Limitation Act to pleasure craft. All reported circuit court decisions apply the Limitation Act to pleasure craft and so do the vast majority of district court cases.While all might agree that extension of the Limitation Act to pleasure craft such as Jet Skis is inconsistent with the historical purposes of the Act, restriction of its applicability requires congressional action. Despite repeated calls for amendment of the Limitation Act, Congress has failed to remove pleasure craft from the statute’s protection, and therefore, Jet Skis continue to be subject to limitation of liability.
In short, the courts have routinely used the Limitation of Liability statute to apply to pleasure craft as well as Jet Skis. South Floridians should be aware of this fact when injured by another boater and take precautions against potential accidents. The total cost of their injuries may not be covered if a lawsuit is brought against the party causing the accident. If you have questions regarding Jet Ski accidents or any other boating accidents, please contact our experienced maritime attorney for a free consultation.