What are my legal obligations if my boat runs aground?

 I own a deep draft racing sailboat and several weeks ago the boat ran aground at high speed in shallow water near a harbor entrance. The force of the impact caused the rig to fail and the mast fell overboard in two ugly pieces. We had to cut it loose to be towed to safety and the rig and part of the destroyed mainsail remain at the site of the grounding. Yesterday I was contacted by the harbor patrol and advised that I had to retrieve the rig and dispose of it immediately. What are my legal obligations under a circumstance like this? I should note that my insurance company concluded that the rig failed because several key components showed signs of extensive corrosion so they denied my insurance claim.
A: Our reader raises a number of complicated issues, including a boat owner’s responsibility for wreck removal, liability for failing to remove debris from a wreck, and insurance coverage for these issues.            

We should first note that the U.S. Coast Guard does has no duty to remove or warn of obstructions that belong to private parties. They may mark abandoned vessels, but they have no obligation to do so (see 14 U.S.C.A. § 86 and 46 U.S.C.A. § 30903).  The primary responsibility for removal of obstructions lies with the obstruction’s owner, lessee, or operator.            

The obligation of a boat owner to clean up a wreck is set forth in what is popularly known as the “Wreck Act” (officially known as the Rivers and Harbors Act, 33 U.S.C. §409).   In passing the Wreck Act, Congress “sought to ensure that navigable waterways remained free of obstructions, including sunken vessels.”             

The Wreck Act accomplishes this objective by imposing three obligations on the owner of a sunken vessel (or debris from a sunken vessel).  First, the owner must immediately mark and maintain the wreck with a buoy or beacon. Second, if the wreck constitutes an obstruction to navigation, the owner must remove the wreck.  Finally, if the owner does not remove the wreck, the Wreck Act authorizes the United States to commence removal and seek reimbursement from the owner.            

Regardless of the statutory obligations of a boat owner, depending on the amount of traffic at the location of the incident, our reader may be exposing himself to liability for marine casualties or environmental damages. Sunken property seems harmless enough, but a recent case demonstrates how hazardous—and costly—abandoned debris can be.  In that case, an abandoned anchor from a large ship rested on the bottom of the Delaware River for at least three years. When another large ship struck the anchor as it approached its berth, the anchor punctured the vessel’s hull, and approximately 263,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the river. The cleanup following the casualty was expensive—costing approximately $140 million. While this example may seem extreme, the same legal principles will apply to our reader’s case if a boat runs over the submerged rig.            

Insurance is a significant part of any analysis of a maritime casualty, and our reader should probably ask his insurance company to take another look at coverage.            

Even if the claim was properly denied because of the worn or corroded components of the failed rig, our reader may have partial coverage under the “sue and labor” clause of his insurance policy.   This “clause” is not actually spelled out in most insurance policies, but it is nonetheless imposed as a mutual duty upon both the boat owner and the insurance company.  In short, it requires the boat owner to take all reasonable steps to protect the boat from further damage after a casualty, and it requires the insurance company to reimburse the boat owner for those actions.   

In this case, our reader indicated that he had to cut the rig loose to allow the boat to be towed to safety.  The sacrifice of the rig appears to have been done to protect the boat from further damage, in which case it appears that part of the cost of replacing the rig, and all of the cost of removing it from its status as a hazard to navigation, should be covered by insurance.            

Further, the insurance company denied the claim because some of the key components of the rig were corroded.  Corrosion is always excluded from coverage, but in this case the rig also failed because the boat ran aground at a high speed, which would have been covered under the insurance policy.  So in this case the loss may have been attributed to two causes, one of which is covered by insurance but the other is not.  Courts will hold under the “efficient proximate cause doctrine” that insurance exits for the covered peril if it is found to be the more likely cause of the loss.            

A boat owner’s obligations in the event of a wreck can be summed up by noting that the owner needs to remove the wreck and associated debris as soon as possible, and contact his or her insurance company immediately.  If you find yourself in this unfortunate position, Contact an experienced maritime lawyer for help through this process.  

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 (weilmaritime.com) 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 dweil@weilmaritime.com.   Ask your question online at thelog.com.

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