President Joe Biden on Friday signed legislation that included a reform inspired by the 2019 Conception Boat fire at Santa Cruz Island.
The Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act, first proposed by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, changes an 1851 law that can prevent maritime accident victims and their families from receiving compensation from those responsible for the accident.
The new law requires owners of small passenger vessels to be held legally responsible for damages in future boating accidents and incidents, regardless of the value of the boat. The period of time during which victims can file a claim is also increased from six months to two years.
“As chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, I’m proud to see important reforms that I’ve fought for signed by President Biden today — including long-overdue updates to maritime liability laws that have denied victims’ families compensation for wrongful deaths at sea,” Rep. Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, said in a statement. “This is an important change, inspired by the families of the 34 precious lives lost on the Conception in 2019, that will ensure families of future maritime disasters do not face the same antiquated laws when seeking the support they deserve.”
Sen. Feinstein said the maritime liability rules were updated in the wake of the Conception fire “because current law is fundamentally unfair to victims of maritime tragedies.
“Basing current maritime liability rules on a law written in 1851 is ridiculous,” she said in a statement. “Owners of small passenger vessels who are found to be legally responsible for damages should be required to make those payments, and that’s what our bill does.”
The measure was included in the final Fiscal Year 2023 defense policy bill, which passed the House and Senate in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote over the past few weeks.
Due to changes made to the bill prior to initial passage out of the House in March, the new law only applies to future liability claims.
“Unfortunately, in the course of bipartisan negotiations earlier this year on our bill, there were some that felt that making this change retroactive for all past maritime accidents, as I had proposed, would go too far,” Rep. Carbajal said. “As I have made clear since March, I completely disagree with that line of thinking, especially when it comes to getting justice for victim’s families, but I believe fixing our laws for the future will be the best case for proving them wrong.
“I am actively exploring the pathway to building on today’s success by enabling restitution for the families of Conception victims that I have worked with and gotten to know over the past three years.”