In nearly every maritime case involving the total loss of a maritime vessel, companies invoke the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851—an old law that allows vessel owners to limit their liability to the total value of the ship and its cargo. In 1851, it was a thoughtful piece of legislation that encouraged maritime trade. In 2018, it’s a shield that insulates negligent companies from accountability. “It’s normal and very egregiously unfair,” said Martin Davies, professor of maritime law at Tulane University.
Today’s story exemplifies how the Limitation of Liability Act has long outlived its usefulness.
In October 2017, Bouchard Transportation was tugging a loaded oil barge in the waters near Port Aransas. The Bouchard barge exploded, killing two deckhands: Zachariah Jackson and Du’Jour Vanterpool. Evidence suggests that Bouchard knew their vessels were dangerous but discouraged employees from discussing it. Subsequent investigations of Bouchard found that their barges were known for allowing oil vapors to leak and gather, creating a high risk of explosion. At least two Bouchard captains have quit due to safety issues.
Making Money on the Backs of Injured & Killed Workers
Arnold & Itkin represents the family of Zachariah Jackson against Bouchard. When we filed our claim, in which we argue that the vessel was “improperly maintained, dangerous, unseaworthy, and otherwise unfit for the purpose they were being used for,” the company acted predictably: they hid behind the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. Bouchard valued their vessel at $5.9 million and asked the court to limit total payout to Zachariah’s family or Du’Jour’s family to the same amount. Essentially, they're asking to not be held accountable for any pain, suffering, and wrongdoing on their part. Under the law, the value of the vessel is all that matters.
Meanwhile, Bouchard has filed an insurance claim for the vessel for $18 million, thanks to a policy they bought four months prior to the explosion. Under the law, Bouchard has no obligation to put aside the insurance money for the claimants injured in the destruction of the vessel. In other words, Bouchard is planning on profiting $12 million from the deaths of their employees.
No Reason to Create Better Ships
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once criticized the Limitation of Liability Act as an “outmoded subsidy” paid for by the casualties of the maritime industry. It’s hard to argue otherwise in this case—Bouchard aims to make three times as much money on the vessel explosion than they stand to lose. If companies aren’t held financially responsible for the damage they cause, what reason do they have to keep their ships safe? If companies can recoup their losses by minimizing repairs and buying insurance policies, then ships will remain unsafe. The only solution is to allow claimants to hold Bouchard, and companies like them, responsible for the pain and damage they cause.
Only by making injury and death as costly to Bouchard as it is to the Jackson family will companies change their ways. Until then, the industry will continue hiding behind a 167-year-old law, and more families will pay for it.