If a Boat Hits Your Truck, Can You Get a Vessel Lien?

My truck was damaged recently in an accident at a launch ramp. The people next to us lost control of their boat when they were trying to load it onto their trailer, and they drove the boat into the side of my truck. Now, they are refusing to pay for the damage that they caused. Do I have a maritime lien against the boat for the collision with my truck?
Believe it or not, the answer is yes — you will have a maritime lien against the boat for the damage to your truck. We’ve spent a lot of time recently discussing maritime liens in this column, but this “boat vs. truck” question deserves one more look at the subject.

When a boat hits a stationary object such as a pier or a bridge, the incident is actually referred to as an “allision,” rather than a “collision.” These types of incidents are not uncommon, as evidenced by the recent allision between the container ship Cosco Busan and the Bay Bridge in Northern California. And, while we don’t see many examples of a boat striking a truck, the rules that apply to a bridge or pier incident will probably apply to a truck, as well.

A maritime lien will arise only where admiralty or maritime jurisdiction exists, so the jurisdiction question must be answered first (note that “admiralty law” and “maritime law” are essentially the same thing and the terms are used interchangeably).

Prior to 1948, admiralty jurisdiction applied only to incidents that occurred entirely upon navigable waters, and the owner of shoreside property therefore had no claim against a boat that damaged the property. Congress addressed this issue in 1948, when it enacted the Admiralty Extension Act. This federal statute extends the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States to “cases of injury or damage, to person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable waters, even though the injury or damage is done or consummated on land.”

The Admiralty Extension Act is not limited to incidents involving bridges and piers, and courts have used this law to extend admiralty jurisdiction, and thereby support maritime liens, under some interesting circumstances.

For example, maritime jurisdiction was found under this law in a case where a “booze cruise” passenger was injured in an automobile accident caused by the driver of another car, who became drunk while also a passenger on the cruise. The court found that the injury was caused by activity aboard a vessel in navigable waters, and they ruled, therefore, that the case fell within maritime jurisdiction. This is an extreme case, but it supports a conclusion that the “boat vs. truck” incident described by the reader will give rise to a maritime lien.

Unfortunately, a maritime lien against a vessel is not a magic wand that automatically leads to a recovery by the injured party. The enforcement and foreclosure of a maritime lien is a very expensive and complicated process and, as we discussed in a prior installment of this column, the costs associated with that procedure can easily exceed the amount of the claim (see “Ask A Maritime Attorney — Foreclosing on Lien Not Necessarily Worth the Cost,” The Log, Dec. 14, 2006). A maritime attorney experienced in lien enforcement should be consulted before pursuing this option.

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