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Three Bills Introduced In Congress to Increase Damages Recoverable In Maritime Injury Cases

The catastrophe that caused the explosion and sinking of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon has focused attention on the need to change damages available to injury victims in maritime torts. Three separate bills have been introduced in the United States Congress to amend and repeal out- of-date Federal Statutes.

The first bill, The Survivors Equality Act of 2010, was introduced by Senator Leahy. This bill would amend the Death On the High Seas Act to allow for non pecuniary damages in death cases including families' loss of care, comfort and companionship. These types of damages are widely available in land-based torts and would allow the same types of damages in maritime death cases. The survivors of a victim of a maritime death on the high seas would also be permitted to recover compensation for pre-death pain and suffering. The existing Death On the High Seas Act severely restricted damages in death cases more than three miles from shore to recovery for pecuniary losses only. The new Act was to be retroactive to all new actions and all currently pending actions. The amendment, if adopted, would apply to the Deepwater Horizon sinking case.

The second bill, The Restore Act, was introduced by Senator Schumer. The new bill would abolish the Limitation of Liability Act. The Limitation of Liability Act is a 150 year old maritime statute permitting a vessel owner to escape or limit liability for ship accidents. The owners of the Deepwater Horizon have petitioned for Limitation of Liability, claiming they did not have privity or knowledge of the acts that caused the oil rig to sink and, therefore, their damage exposure should be limited to 21 million dollars. The Limitation of Liability Act was passed in the days of sailing ships to encourage investment in shipping. When the Limitation of Liability Act was passed in 1851, there was no marine insurance available to protect vessel owners from negligence claims. Today, with modern marine insurance widely available and there is the ability to limit cargo liability exposure through contracts and bills of lading, the Act has now long outlived its usefulness. Many legal scholars and judges have called for its repeal. The Limitation of Liability Act adds needless costs and expenses to victims of maritime torts timely receiving justice.

The third bill, Securing Protections For The Injured From Limitation of Liability Act, was introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Conyers. The House Bill would similarly abolish the Limitation of Liability Act; however, the House Bill goes further. The Bill would clarify that the Death On the High Seas Act begins at 12 nautical miles, not three. The Bill would allow for pecuniary losses, loss of love and affection and pre-death pain and suffering. The Bill further specifically amends the Jones Act to provide for recovery of loss of care, comfort, and companionship for the deceased seaman's family.

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