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The Limits of Limited Liability with Maritime Accidents

A San Francisco Bay ferry collided with a speedboat in February 2013 killing the operator, an Oregon resident.  The ferry had roughly 500 passengers aboard when it crashed into the speedboat.  A second passenger on the motorboat, the owner of the vessel, was sent to the hospital with injuries.  “In the jury trial, claimants’ closing arguments were that the ferry captain was distracted by a cell phone call and did not see the speedboat.” 

The operator of the ferry, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District – referred to as Golden Gate – filed a petition to limit liability, a frequent strategy in many maritime accidents.  If the “bid to limit liability is successful, they are basically only on the hook for the post-casualty value of the vessel.” 

The court, that December, “rendered its decision on Golden Gate’s petition to limit liability.”  One could assume that a cell phone call is outside the control of a ship owner, whereas responsibilities like engine maintenance/inspection, safety drills, etc. would fall within their control.  However, “courts tend to look beneath the surface in limitation proceedings.”  In this particular situation, the court saw that it was not simply “a spontaneous phone call.”  The court found that the operator of the ferry failed to meet the legal burden in showing a lack of knowledge – if this was not the case, the court would have enabled limiting liability.

One of GLP Attorneys’ many specialties is maritime law.  With Washington’s economy having a strong focus in the maritime industry and culture, accidents are bound to happen.  If you know anyone that has been in a maritime accident and would like to learn more about the Rights and Remedies of a Seaman, the Unseaworthiness Doctrine, the Jones Act, or more, Maritime Injuries is a great place to start! Always feel free to contact us if you have any questions at 206.448.1992 or at

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