January 21, 2016
In the January 2016 issue of Long Island Boating World
magazine, Tim covers issues of liability in an accident where a
boat breaks away from its mooring. The article, Legal Issues
Raised in Breakaway Boat Case, discusses the operation of
legal presumptions under U.S. maritime law...
The arrival of fall in the Northeast is eagerly awaited by many
boaters. While some long for those hot August afternoons where
sunbaked windshield frames inflict first degree burns on
unsuspecting fingers, others embrace the colorful foliage that
appears around the same time supermarkets start displaying
Halloween pumpkins. It’s a season when weather and sea
conditions are very different from only a couple of months earlier.
Boats that lazily and aimlessly circled their moorings on hot
muggy nights now ride up and down like bucking broncos, taut
pennants straining under the violent pitching. Those who didn’t
haul their vessels by this time make a point of regularly
inspecting chafing gear and paying close attention to weather
It’s also a time of year when boats occasionally break loose from
their moorings. If this happens, it can obviously result in legal
action. It all depends on the tide, wind, and trajectory a boat
takes, which although predictable to some extent, carries
elements of chance. If a small centerboard sailboat winds up
unscathed in some eelgrass, a simple tow at high tide from a
kind launch driver could save the day. But a heavy motor yacht
that scrapes up the gel coats of a couple of expensive vessels
along the way could result in more serious consequences.
A federal court recently dealt with a lawsuit involving a
breakaway boat on the East Coast. A large sailboat broke loose
from its mooring in late October. The pennant had apparently
been severed following chafing. The runaway sailboat hit a
private dock and caused damage. In the ensuing lawsuit, an
interesting maritime law concept called the Louisiana Rule was
Under the Louisiana Rule, a vessel that breaks free from its
mooring is presumed to be at fault. Presumptions are not unique
to maritime law. We’re familiar with the well known legal
presumption cited in the criminal justice system that a defendant
is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s just that in maritime
law, the presumptions are unique to the business of ships and
A legal presumption more or less sets the stage for the
respective burdens everyone has in a lawsuit. In other words, we
start out of the box on the premise that fault lies with the
breakaway vessel under the Louisiana Rule. However,
presumptions can be rebutted. In the case of a breakaway vessel
hitting a pier, an owner could challenge the presumption by
showing one of these three legal elements:
(1.) The allision was the fault of the stationary object.
(2.) The moving vessel acted with reasonable care, or
(3.) the allision was an avoidable accident. (Zerega Ave. Realty v.
Hornbeck Offshore Transportation, 571 F 3d 206, 211 (2d Cir.
Because the vessel here hadn’t been moved after forecasts
provided warnings about the impending storm, this worked
against its owner.
The owner of the sailboat raised a maritime law concept known
as limitation of liability. If successfully invoked, this legal doctrine
would serve to limit his liability to the post-accident value of the
vessel if certain conditions were met. The court asked two
questions to determine whether he could limit liability:
(1.) Was the accident caused by conduct that is actionable, that
is, by negligent conduct?
(2.) Was the actionable conduct without the vessel owner’s
privity or knowledge? (In re complaint of Messina, 574 F. 2d)
The court went into a detailed discussion on the fine points of
these two questions. In essence, the court determined that
failing to move a vessel in the face of impending severe weather
served to defeat the attempt to limit liability. Given the weather
patterns that can materialize after Labor Day weekend, such
scenarios are not that uncommon in the Northeast.
Although it’s a time of year that heavy weather sailors with
serious boats look forward to, it’s also a season that can lead to
breakaway vessels. While maritime law presents legal concepts
that make for interesting scholarly discussion on this subject,
nature itself is far more straightforward by contrast, providing
very simple laws that severe weather can be destructive and
unforgiving in the fall.
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