When a plaintiff files a lawsuit regarding a recreational boating accident, the defendant may claim defenses that are similar to those available in any other accident case. Such defenses include that the accident was inevitable, that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent or assumed the risk, that there was a superseding cause, or that the plaintiff’s action is barred by the doctrine of laches or by a statute of limitations.
In federal admiralty law, an accident is inevitable when it results from an act of God or extreme weather conditions, such as sudden storms, hurricanes, or fog. An accident is also inevitable if it could not have been prevented by the exercise of ordinary care, caution, or maritime skill. If an accident is inevitable, no one is at fault for the accident and no one is responsible for the damages. In order for this defense to apply, there cannot be any negligence on the part of any party. A defendant has the burden of proving the defense of inevitable accident.
Contributory Negligence/Assumption of the Risk
A plaintiff’s contributory negligence or assumption of the risk is included within the comparative negligence theory under federal admiralty law. Comparative negligence means that a party is responsible for his or her proportionate share of fault. The plaintiff’s contributory negligence or assumption of the risk is not a complete defense. It does not bar recovery by the plaintiff. It only reduces the amount of damages that the plaintiff may recover.
Even though federal admiralty law has adopted the comparative negligence theory, the doctrine of superseding cause may still apply. In accordance with the doctrine, an intervening force supersedes a defendant’s prior negligence, which intervening force breaks the chain of proximate cause. However, the intervening force cannot be normal or foreseeable. It must be extraordinary and must cause the injury or the harm.
Statute of Limitations
There is a three-year statute of limitations for lawsuits that are brought for personal injuries or for death as a result of a maritime tort. The statute applies to in personam suits, that is, suits that are brought to recover damages against a person, and in rem suits, that is, suits that are brought to attach a vessel itself. The statute is a federal statute that preempts any state statute of limitations, even if the action is brought in state court. There is a two-year statute of limitations for actions that are brought against the United States under the Suits in Admiralty Act. The Jones Act has a three-year statute of limitations.
When an admiralty action is not governed by any statute of limitations, a defendant may claim that the action is barred by the doctrine of laches. Laches means that a plaintiff delayed in the assertion of his or her rights and the delay has resulted in prejudice to the defendant. A court will determine whether the plaintiff’s delay was unreasonable. If the applicable statute of limitations has expired, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that his or her delay was not unreasonable and that the defendant was not prejudiced by the delay. If the statute of limitations has not expired, the defendant has the burden of proving that the delay was unreasonable and that he or she was prejudiced by the delay.