Can a Race Protest Committee Legally Determine Fault in a Collision?

I own a racing sailboat, and I was involved in a collision with another competitor during a race. The protest committee determined that we were at fault, and the owner of the other boat is asking for my insurance company to cover the damage. I think the protest committee made the wrong call in finding that we were at fault. I know the racing rules provide for an appeals process within the racing community, but what are my legal rights if I want to pursue this through the legal system?
Most yacht racing worldwide is governed by a collection of rules known as the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS). These rules are published every four years by the International Sailing Federation, and they are administered in this country by US Sailing and by the organizers of individual races and regattas.            

Protest committees are convened by the organizing yacht club for a race or regatta to resolve various disputes that arise between competitors. These protests may involve collisions, but they often involve less dramatic encounters for failure to yield the right of way or give a boat room to maneuver or room to round a mark.            

Regardless of the nature of the protest, the RRS have very specific rules for appeals that significantly limit a competitor’s access to the legal system, and those limitations were upheld by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in 1995.            

The 1995 case involved a collision between the restored 120-foot J-Class yacht Endeavor and a modern 72-foot racing yacht called Charles Jourdan, during a race off the coast of France. The protest committee held that Endeavor was entirely at fault, but its owners nonetheless brought suit against the owners of Charles Jourdan in U.S. District Court in Maine.            

The owners of Endeavor argued that regardless of the ruling by the protest committee, Charles Jourdan would have been at fault under the International Rules of the Road — and, as such, they were entitled to be reimbursed for damage suffered by Endeavor from the collision.            

The Court of Appeals eventually upheld the decision of the protest committee, finding that by entering the race, the boats were “contractually bound to race by the rules of the road contained in the racing rules, and to resolve issues related to fault for any collisions according to those rules.”            

The court’s reference to the method for resolving disputes is important, since the RRS contain several very specific provisions relating to the method and forum for dispute resolution. Rule 3 provides in part that, by participating in a race, all competitors and boat owners agree to “accept the penalties imposed and other action taken under the rules, subject to the appeal and review procedures provided in them, as the final determination of any matter arising under the rules, and with respect to any such determination, not to resort to any court of law or tribunal.”            

The Charles Jourdan court noted that a contractual agreement to resolve disputes through a specific private forum is a type of binding arbitration. Section 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act provides that ‘[a] written provision in any maritime transaction … to settle by arbitration a controversy arising out of such … transaction … shall be valid, irrevocable and enforceable.’” Since yacht racing is a maritime transaction with written protest procedures, the findings of a protest committee are binding on participants pursuant to the provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act.            

In our reader’s case, he would be able to appeal to US Sailing, but after that, the decision on who is at fault for the collision would be final. The only remaining issue would be to determine the amount to be paid to the owner of the damaged boat.            

Notably, the RRS take a completely opposite position on the use of the legal system when it comes to determining a dollar amount for collision damage. Rule 68, as amended in this country by US Sailing, specifically prohibits a protest committee from adjudicating a claim for damages and further provides that such a claim is subject to the jurisdiction of the courts rather than a protest committee.            

Most of these disputes are handled through the insurance companies for the two boats, in which case, there is little need to jump through these appellate hoops. However, a boat owner involved in a collision may want to contact an experienced maritime attorney, if there are questions of insurance coverage or other issues that may threaten to cost one or the other competitor real money out of pocket.


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