How do I pursue a lawsuit vs. a boat mechanic?

Q. My boat sank a couple of months ago due to the negligence of boat mechanic and I’m looking for advice on how to recover at least a part of my loss from him. He was working in my engine room and he apparently broke a through-hull fitting for an old knotmeter. The fitting did not have a valve, and when it broke the old sending unit was dislodged, allowing water to enter the engine room. The boat sank very slowly and nobody noticed that it was low in the water until it was too late. The marine surveyor who investigated the loss found the broken fitting but he did not really say anything as to how or why it happened, and he did not place any blame. I spent a little over $30,000 to repair the boat, and I am now considering a lawsuit against the mechanic to recover my loss. Since this is a maritime case, would the lawsuit need to be filed in federal court? What is the federal statute of limitations for a claim such as this? What are the other significant issues that I should look out for?
A. The claim described by our reader this will give rise to federal admiralty jurisdiction (allowing a federal judge to hear the case) because it concerns negligence in the performance of work aboard a vessel in navigable waters, but it is not exclusive federal jurisdiction. The “Saving to Suitors Clause” of the Judiciary Act of 1789 allows plaintiffs to proceed in state court for most admiralty claims, at their option.

State court is an attractive option for many maritime claimants.  For example, plaintiffs in maritime personal injury cases may prefer to file the case in state court because most maritime cases are not heard by a jury if the case is filed in federal court.  And, plaintiff personal injury lawyers often want a jury because individual jurors are perceived to be more sympathetic to injured mariners than a judge might be.

In our reader’s case, state court is a good idea for several reasons.  First, federal judges hate small cases   For most non-maritime cases, a minimum claim amount of $75,000.00 is required to file the case in federal court.  Maritime cases may be filed in federal court without regard to the size of the claim, but it is usually a bad idea to burden the calendar of a federal judge with a relatively small claim.  Second, federal maritime cases may be required to follow an extensive list of arcane procedural steps that litigants who are unfamiliar with federal procedure may find cumbersome.

Regardless of which court is chosen, the body of law that would be applied to the case is basically the same.  So whether the case is heard in state or federal court, the case would be subject to the time limit for a negligence action in California, which is three years.

Time limits for filing a lawsuit are important, but our reader may face significant obstacles in trying to prove that his mechanic was negligent.  For example, he indicated that the surveyor’s report was inconclusive, but at this point the surveyor’s report appears to be the only real evidence to determine how the boat sank.  He may therefore need to hire an independent expert to examine the boat, but since the boat has already been repaired the expert may be unable to establish the cause of the loss.

Even if our reader can establish that the fitting was broken because of the mechanic’s negligence, he we will also need to establish that the mechanic should have known that this would cause the boat to sink.  Our reader mentioned that it was a slow sinking that did not attract any attention from anyone.  In that case, it may have been difficult for the mechanic to realize that the boat was sinking. 

Finally, our reader talked about a surveyor but he failed to mention who hired the surveyor.  I suspect that the surveyor was hired by our reader’s insurance company to investigate the loss and determine whether it was covered by insurance.  If an insurance claim was paid, our reader may be barred from pursuing an additional recovery from his mechanic.  If the claim was denied, he may want to retain an attorney to evaluate whether the insurance denial may be challenged in court.

Discussions regarding litigation options often raise more questions than they answer, and our reader’s case is a good example of this pattern.  He should discuss the case further with a maritime attorney who is experienced in pursuing this type of claim.

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 ( in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at (562) 438-8149 or at

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