- A small boat on Table Rock Lake in Missouri capsized Thursday, killing 17 people on board after heavy winds battered and eventually swamped the ship.
- Due to quirks of maritime law, the survivors and victims could either be entitled to tens of millions in damages for wrongful death or injuries and pain and suffering, or just the surviving debris from the shipwreck.
- If the ship owner can prove the winds were an act of god, and that his vessel was seaworthy, the victims can only sue them for the remaining part of the boat not destroyed – likely just a few planks of wood or fibreglass.
A small boat on Table Rock Lake in Missouri capsized on Thursday, killing 17 people on board after heavy winds battered and eventually swamped the ship.
But due to quirks of maritime law, the survivors and victims could either be entitled to tens of millions in damages and pain and suffering, or just the surviving debris from the shipwreck.
Lawrence Brennan, a professor of maritime law at Fordham University, told Business Insider that it all comes down to a hotly contested 1851 law called limitation of liability.
If the ship owner can prove that the ship was entirely seaworthy and they had no reason or way of knowing that such incredible winds would come through, they may successfully petition for limitation of liability, according to Brennan. This would limit their exposure to only the surviving portion of the boat.
In this case, if limitation of liability is granted, the survivors and victims can only legally claim what’s left of the shipwreck, likely a only a few planks of wood or fibreglass.
Brennan said that the owners of the Titanic went to the Supreme Court to cap their liability and won, meaning victims of the Titanic sinking literally only could have won a few planks of a lifeboat if they took the case to court. Luckily, the Titanic was making a trans-Atlantic passage, and victims got compensation from London, Brennan said.
“But, if the victims can break limitation of liability, if they can prove the ship is not seaworthy or they didn’t do their due diligence,” then they could recieve astronomically higher compensations, said Brennan. Additionally, breaking of limitation of liability happens in most cases, said Brennan.
“I’ll be conservative and say tens of millions of dollars,” Brennan said of the potential damages. “We don’t know the economic loses. We assume some of them are children, and those damages are a little hard to predict. I’m not going to be surprised if it’s many tens of millions of dollars.”
Brennan said that video of the ship’s fate will likely play a huge role in the proceedings.
“We saw the video, and we know what was happening,” said Brennan. “Imagine being on the inside, being petrified, being a parent or child and knowing that this could be the last moment of your life and your family’s life. All likely have psychological injury.”
Winds in the area reached more than 60 mph on Thursday, and the National Weather Service issued a severe-thunderstorm warning for the area, the NWS meteorologist Steve Lindenberg told the Associated Press.
A quick review of the weather records on Table Rock Lake indicate that winds that speed have been rarely reported, but it will be up to a jury to decide if the tragedy was an act of god, or a case of poor seamanship.
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