The tenets of good seamanship and common sense dictate that your boat should never be unintentionally adrift. Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law applies equally on land and at sea. Whether caused by a mechanical failure, a broken line, unexpected weather conditions, or one of the multitude of problems that can arise while operating a boat, sometimes vessels end up drifting at sea. But take heed, a drifting boat can result in much more than a headache and a set of wet clothes.
The Louisiana Rule creates a presumption of fault against a boat owner if his or her vessel is drifting or breaks free from its moorings and causes damages to other vessels or property. The Louisiana, 70 U.S. 164 (1865). The rationale behind this rule is based on the common-sense idea that unless there is evidence to the contrary, a boat that is drifting has been mishandled or improperly secured. As such, it is the boat owner who should bear the resulting damages.
This Rule is only a presumption. A boat owner can rebut this presumption by showing that the casualty resulted from an inevitable accident that human skill and precaution could not have prevented. Id. Although this may seem like a high bar, rebutting this presumption does not require a boat owner to have utilized means deemed appropriate by hindsight; instead, the owner must only show that prudent seamanship, ordinary care, and reasonable precautions were taken based on the circumstances as known prior to the casualty. Fischer v. S/Y Neraida, 508 F.3d 586 (11th Cir. 2007).
The importance of this presumption, and the ability to rebut it, is magnified when considering the tropical storms and hurricanes that routinely impact the coast of North Carolina. Every year boats break free from their moorings and cause significant damage. The Louisiana Rule and presumption of the boat owner’s fault remains in full force, despite powerful hurricanes contributing in large part to the casualties. In Re Signal International LLC, 579 F.3d 478 (5th Cir. 2009). Still, careful preparation and representation can result in a successful rebuttal of this presumption even in the face of significant damages caused by a drifting boat following a hurricane. Petition of United States, 300 F. Supp. 358 (E.D. La. 1969), affirmed 425 F.2d 991 (5th Cir. 1970).
The attorneys in Cranfill Sumner LLP’s Admiralty and Maritime Practice Group can help you navigate through the myriad of challenges that arise when your vessel is involved in an accident, which includes seeking to rebut presumptions of fault, developing legal arguments that may allow a court to cap your liability at the post-accident value of your boat, and mitigating adverse arguments, theories, and maritime legal principals of purported liability.