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Ask A Maritime Attorney: After leaving a maintenance visit at the boatyard, my engine overheated due to a closed cooling water intake valve. Is it the yard’s fault, and can I claim compensation?

Question:

            I had bottom paint and some other work completed during a recent boatyard visit.  The other work included inspection and replacement of several thru hull seacock valves located below the waterline of my boat.  I paid the yard’s invoice in full and picked up my boat upon completion of the project.  We left the yard, but my starboard engine overheated during our short trip back to my slip.  We tracked the cause of the overheating to a closed cooling water intake valve for the engine. The engine seacock valves were regularly serviced and, as such, were not among the valves that were replaced by the yard.  But the yard closed the valve and left it closed when they launched the boat.  The fact that the valve was left in its closed position seems to me to have been an obvious case of gross negligence by the yard, and something that we should be compensated for.  Can you help?

 

Answer

The short answer here is that our reader does not appear to have a valid legal claim against his boatyard, but let’s take a closer look.

First, his focus on the term“gross negligence” is misplaced.  The legal term  “gross negligence” has a very limited application which, for the most part, is limited to certain criminal offenses where penalties are enhanced for reckless behavior.  A finding of gross negligence may be relevant in a civil law context, but only in very limited circumstances. It would not be at all applicable to our reader’s claim.  So let’s look at ordinary negligence.

All of us owe a duty to those around us to act reasonably to avoid harming them. We are “negligent” when we breach that duty to act reasonably, and we can be held liable for the harm caused by our negligence.   In a litigation context, we often bring a claim of negligence in a personal injury lawsuit, where, for example, a driver in a rear-end car collision may be found to have acted negligently by failing to drive his car in a reasonable and prudent manner, and injuring the driver of the other car as a consequence of that behavior. Expert testimony is generally required to establish the “reasonable and prudent” standard. A negligence lawsuit would seek monetary damages based upon the amount you were damaged by the defendant’s negligent behavior. Attorneys’ fees and other costs, such as the fee charged by the expert witness, are generally not recoverable in a negligence lawsuit.  Note also that there is no legal claim for negligence if the person’s unreasonable behavior caused no harm or damage.

Negligence can also extend to work performed for money, such as in our reader’s case.  Under a negligence theory, a court would look at the work that was completed and evaluate whether it was done pursuant to a professional standard of care, comparing the yard’s performance to what a reasonably competent workman in a similar situation would have done, again using expert testimony.  But, similar to the personal injury case, the analysis would mostly focus on whether they actually harmed his boat – – – an incompetent repair job, by itself, would not be found to be negligent if they did not actually damage the boat.  Looking at his case, a court may find the yard negligent if, for example, his engine was damaged due to the closed thru-hull.

Our reader’s legal claim would more likely be evaluated under a breach of contract theory.  Under a contract theory, a court would evaluate whether the yard actually performed the agreed upon work, and whether he fulfilled his end of the contract (mostly, whether he paid his bill, but it may also include other obligations).  A breach of contract analysis may not look into the quality of the work, unless the performance was so shoddy that it amounted to a complete failure to do the work at all.  A breach of contract lawsuit could seek a variety of remedies, but monetary damages for the amount required to properly complete the job would be the most likely remedy.  Attorneys’ fees are recoverable in a breach of contract action, but only if the language of the contract provides that attorneys’ fees will be awarded to the prevailing party of the lawsuit.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com,  or via email at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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