Every boat-owning Texas resident knows that the Gulf of Mexico regularly gets severe tropical storms. Occasionally, during a really nasty storm, the wind and waves can rip a vessel from its moorings and send it drifting, where it can crash into docks or other vessels. When this happens, who is responsible for the resulting damage – and how do courts sort out the mess?
What the courtroom trend shows
Typically, when a vessel collides with a stationary object (which is called an allision), the owner of the vessel is responsible for any resulting damage. Most courts reason that, since the stationary object wasn’t moving and the vessel was, the vessel owner had to have been negligent in some way to have caused the accident.
This is true even when two ships collide during a storm. Courts will typically begin by assuming that the fault likes with the owners who failed to secure their vessels correctly. In that case, it would be up to you as the vessel owner to make an argument before the court for why the accident was unavoidable, and that it happened despite you having taken all reasonable precautions.
Acts of God
Maritime law has a long precedent of recognizing Acts of God as affirmative defenses in property damage cases. Under this doctrine, a party isn’t responsible if they successfully plead the defense that an Act of God (such as a hurricane) created conditions that made the accident unavoidable.
This defense is challenging to present, because you also have to show that you took every reasonable precaution to avoid the accident. For example, you would have to show that you did a thorough job of tying down your boat, or, if you were sailing at the time, that you put forth your best efforts to avoid the allision or collision.
Property damage involving seafaring vessels can be extremely costly. If the damage was the result of an unavoidable event beyond your control, however, you may be able to avoid personal liability for the damage.