Sunken boat liability — who’s responsible for its removal?

I recently lost my boat in a marina fire in Northern California. The fire started aboard a boat in a neighboring slip and my boat was one of four that were totally destroyed. The burned-out hull of my boat is still in the slip but it is totally submerged. The marina has demanded that I remove the wreck but the boat was not insured and I don’t really have the funds to take care of it on my own. Since it is not in a navigable channel, am I legally required to have it removed?

The short answer is “yes,” our reader is legally obligated to remove the wreck.

Federal law and California state law both impose a duty upon boat owners to clean up their wrecked boats, but the duty differs somewhat depending upon where the wreck is located.

The Federal Rivers and Harbors Act (commonly known as the “Wreck Act,” 33 U.S. Code §409) focuses on keeping navigable waterways free of obstructions, including sunken vessels. The Wreck Act accomplishes this objective by requiring the owner of a wreck to immediately mark and maintain the wreck with a buoy or beacon, and, if the wreck constitutes an obstruction to navigation, the owner must remove the wreck. If the owner does not remove the wreck, the Wreck Act authorizes the Federal government to arrange for the removal and seek reimbursement from the owner.

The Wreck Act focuses mostly on whether the vessel or debris constitutes a hazard to navigation and whether it may pose a risk of pollution. As such it may not apply to our reader, whose sunken boat remains in its slip. This is where California state law will step in.

California Harbors and Navigation Code §525 makes it a crime (an infraction) to abandon a vessel upon a public waterway or on public or private property without the express permission of the property owner. The extension of this law to private property distinguishes it from the Federal statute, and it establishes liability for boat owners who are in the circumstance described by our reader.

Pursuant to California Harbors and Navigation Code §522, a boat is “abandoned” if it is left in a disabled state for more than thirty days. If convicted of failing to remove an abandoned wreck under §525, the court may levy a fine ranging from $1,000.00 to $3,000.00, PLUS the costs of the wreck removal. If the boat is not a total loss, §522 allows the local harbor department or municipality to take title to an abandoned boat and then sell or destroy it, and hold the owner responsible for the costs of the sale or destruction.

The primary responsibility for removal of a wreck lies with its owner, lessee, or operator, but he or she seek reimbursement from the person or entity that caused the wreck. In our reader’s case, he will have a claim against the owner of the boat on which the fire started, and assuming the boat is insured, he should be no problem being reimbursed. If the responsible boat is uninsured, everyone is in for a long fight. This should serve as a lesson for all boat owners. Boat insurance is cheap. The alternative may be very, very expensive.


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