Ask a Maritime Attorney: What can I do about a marine surveyor, who I feel didn’t do his job?

Question:

I recently bought a boat over the internet. I never saw the boat in person before the purchase because it was a few hundred miles away, but I hired a marine surveyor to inspect the boat so I figured he would look out for my interests. Unfortunately, the surveyor missed a long list of pretty obvious problems. I would like to lodge a complaint against him, but I can’t figure out who to contact. The surveyor is a Coast Guard licensed captain, but the Coast Guard won’t talk to me about this.  Is there a state agency that regulates marine surveyors? If not, can I sue him for something like this?

 

Answer

This scenario raises a number of problems that need to be addressed before we answer our reader’s specific questions.

First, no one should ever buy a boat without first going aboard and looking at things with their own eyes. That sounds fairly obvious but we are currently in a unique market. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a big surge in used boat sales, and with limited inventory available long-distance purchases are a lot more common than they were before the pandemic.

This advice should apply to surveyors as well. The purpose of a pre-purchase marine survey is to evaluate the physical condition of the boat and to appraise the value, both of which may theoretically be done without any input from the buyer. But a surveyor needs to work with a buyer in person, to evaluate the buyer’s needs and concerns and to confirm the boat in question will meet those needs.

As for our reader’s specific questions, we can start by correcting a fairly common mistake. Marine surveyors are not licensed or regulated by any government agency. There is no licensing requirement, and anyone with a volt meter and a ball-peen hammer can hang up a sign tomorrow and call himself a surveyor. A surveyor who promotes himself as a licensed captain is simply using the license as a marketing tool since the Coast Guard has no jurisdiction over his duties as a surveyor. It’s like showing your FAA pilot’s license to get a job as a truck driver.

This lack of government oversight may be traced to the wide range of services performed by surveyors, and the practical obstacles to the regulation of those services through one agency.  Most boat owners will need a surveyor when they buy a boat, and for insurance renewal purposes. However, a surveyor may also be called upon to survey large commercial vessels, evaluate compliance with regulatory requirements, perform marine insurance investigations, including investigations for damaged cargo from merchant ships, and testify as expert witnesses in litigation. No surveyor is qualified to perform all these tasks, and no one government agency could effectively regulate or monitor such a varied profession.

So marine surveyors are not regulated by the government, but the maritime community has its own tools for setting standards of competency. Surveyors rely heavily on referrals from lenders and yacht brokers for pre-purchase inspections, and assignments from insurance companies to investigate claims. Their success or failure in the profession will depend upon the strength of their reputation in the eyes of these professionals.

Boat purchasers may look to their yacht broker for a referral to a surveyor, but this referral may be tainted by a conflict of interest since a yacht broker has a vested interest in getting the boat sold. A surveyor’s membership in an industry trade group may provide more insight into their qualifications. Many qualified surveyors belong to either the National Association of Marine Surveyors (“NAMS”) or the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (“SAMS”). These trade groups will designate their members as “Certified” (through NAMS), or “Accredited” (through SAMS). Many boat owners mistake these designations for a license of some sort, and while neither organization has any government affiliation, their endorsement can provide some assurance as to the surveyor’s qualifications. More information is available online, for NAMS at www.namsglobal.org and for SAMS at  www.marinesurvey.org.

Our reader’s final question concerned whether he could sue is surveyor. I will first warn that it is impossible to evaluate a legal claim without reviewing the facts of a dispute in significant depth, so I can’t directly answer our reader’s question other than to say “yes,” a boat owner may sue a surveyor for negligence. But the fact that the surveyor missed a few problems does not, by itself, mean he was legally negligent. An evaluation of negligence starts by asking whether a hypothetical reasonably qualified person in the same situation would have done anything differently, and then we need to ask whether the buyer would have done anything differently. All of this needs to be discussed with a qualified maritime attorney who is able to look closely at the facts of the case.

 

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 (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com,  or via email at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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