The Limitation of Liability Act in Maritime Accidents

The Limitation of Liability Act

General maritime law dictates that a vessel owner may be subject to liability for any damages or losses that occur during the vessel’s voyage. Under the Limitation of Liability Act, however, ship owners may avoid taking full responsibility for certain accidents and deaths that occur on their vessel.

According to the Limitation of Liability Act, a vessel owner is entitled to limit damage claims to the vessel’s value at the end of the voyage, plus the freight then pending—provided that the owner can establish that he or she lacked knowledge of the problem beforehand.

The act covers personal injury losses, as well as cargo losses such as loss of merchandise, goods, and property. The act therefore plays a crucial role in determining the availability and amount of compensation an injured seaman can receive.


In 1851, the United States Congress enacted the Limitation of Liability Act for the primary purpose of promoting and encouraging the growth of the American shipping industry and the American merchant fleet.

The act also aimed to provide shipowners with a measure of protection in the event that their ships caused damage or injury to others where the shipowners had no “knowledge or privity” of the incident’s cause. At that time, there were no ready means of communication between the shipowners and masters until the ships returned home.

Limited Liability

The Limitation Act applies to both American and foreign shipowners and seagoing vessels, as well as to vessels used on rivers, lakes, and inland navigation.

All commercial vessel owners, under the act, may claim limitation of liability. Pleasure vessel owners are also entitled to limitation of liability. It must be noted that pleasure vessels such as jet skis and houseboats are excluded from specific portions of the act. Under certain conditions, charterers may also seek limitation of liability.

The Limitation Act only applies to accidents that result in personal injuries and other losses occurring on U.S. navigable waters. A vessel owner is not entitled to limit liability if the casualty takes place on waterways not considered navigable.

Recent Criticisms

Over the years, injured passengers, cargo claimants, and other Limitation Act critics argue that the original purpose of the act is no longer necessary. Courts have become more resistant in upholding a vessel owner’s petition for limitation. Congress, through the passing of House Bill HR 5503, has even attempted to put an end to the Limitation Act entirely. The bill has yet to be enacted into law.

At present, federal courts continue to apply the Limitation Act throughout the U.S. despite the various criticisms. The act currently still plays a major role in determining the availability and amount of compensation to be awarded to claimants.

Deepwater Horizon Survivors’ Fairness Act

The senate introduced a bill referred to as the Deepwater Horizon Survivors’ Fairness Act in the 112th Congress. This bill aims to revise the Limitation Act in order to make an exception for all personal injuries and wrongful death claims linked to the destruction and explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform.

Seeking Legal Representation

Injured seamen or their loved ones should seek legal representation from an attorney knowledgeable and experienced with cases involving maritime law. A competent personal injury lawyer may be able to help prove that the vessel owner had partial or full knowledge of the unsafe working conditions that resulted in the sustained injury. Without such proof, an injured seaman’s chances of compensation and recovery may be reduced significantly.

If you have suffered serious injury or lost a loved one due to wrongful death in a maritime accident, call Corpus Christi Texas Jones Act and maritime lawyer Sheadyn R Rogers of Rogers Law Firm at (361) 356-6057 for a free consultation concerning your case. 

Rogers Law Firm serves the following areas: Aransas County, Bee County, Brooks County, Duval County, Jim Wells County, Kenedy County, Kleberg County, Live Oak County, Nueces County, Refugio County, San Patricio County & the Corpus Christi TX Metroplex.

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