Limitation of liability in maritime law is crucial to understand when an accident has occurred on a U.S. waterway. This field of litigation differs significantly than land-based accident law and requires a proficient maritime lawyer who fully understands the regulations for incidents involving persons and vessel at sea.

Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, has a long history in the United States and is incredibly complex. Since vessels come in and out of international waters carrying both human life and freight, lawsuits have multi-layered elements. Initially, maritime laws aimed to encourage more investment in trade and shipping. Since the 1900s, businesses and individuals have used this area of law to protect themselves from incidents that have occurred at ports and at sea.

What is a Limitation of Liability?

In 1851 the United States created the Limitation Liability Act that allows the operator of a vessel to claim limited liability for occurrences resulting in losses, injury, or death at sea. This Act also enables an operator to claim they have no obligation to any damages of vessels, or the freight it carried, in a waterway accident.

For example in the case “Holzhauer v. Golden Gate Bridge Hwy. & Transp.” a ferry operator hit a pleasure vessel killing one and injuring many others. The ferry operator claimed limited liability, while the claimant accused the ferry operator’s captain that his cell phone activity was the cause of the accident.

What this means is, accidents on the water can leave you to prove someone acted recklessly or that the vessel was faulty or unseaworthy. A claimant will also have to prove that the operator was “aware” of the vessel’s faults. In either situation, the burden of proof falls on those with (likely) the more significant damages or injuries. As you can imagine, these cases get exceedingly complicated which is why consulting with a maritime lawyer is pivotal.

Who Can Use the Limitation Liability Act?

The Act applies to all seagoing vessels including those on lakes, rivers, and oceans in the United States. For example, the owner of a small pleasure-craft can use it one day, and the next day, a major commercial barge operation may use it after an incident. The claimant will file a civil suit in a Federal District Court either by

1. taking an offensive approach or
2. taking a defensive approach to an accident.

An individual or company has 6-months to file a claim which is the statute of limitation period strictly recognized by admiralty courts. Some cases see a dismissal for missing this timeframe by those who are unfamiliar with maritime laws.

The claimant is responsible for providing evidence of negligence and/or operator knowledge that the vessel isn’t seaworthy. If a judge believes sufficient evidence by the claimant proves the grievance, the vessel owner (defendant party) will then be responsible for proving otherwise. In maritime law, the accused may claim no known “privity” or “knowledge” that the vessel is unseaworthy.

Important Factors in Limitation Liability Cases

  • Structure of Claims – Federal district courts require that claims have a specific structure and make particular claims. A complaint cannot be general in context and must provide evidentiary support that an operator was responsible for the incident.
  • Proof of Losses – A claimant will also need to provide documentation of losses, be that damage to the vessel, injury, freight, or loss of life. Evidence such as financial records, freight receipts, and death certificates are often sources of proof.
  • Proper Venue – An admiralty lawsuit of liability resides in a Federal District Court. If the complaint comes through the wrong court, a judge can move it to the proper court or dismiss it entirely. The defense can exploit this mistake, so it is essential a maritime lawyer submits the filing procedures.

The Impact of Limitation Liability Cases

As noted above, the Limited Liability Act has been around for a long time. Those who practice the law even have their doubts on how appropriate it is in modern time. In today’s environment, technology has significantly changed how vessels navigate waterways. You might believe that winning this sort of suit (especially in the case of injury) is a relatively simple case. Unfortunately, since the laws have not been changed in decades, the burden of proof resides with the accuser and the laws heavily protect the responsible party. Evidence in these cases is tricky to substantiate especially under the time restraints. 

Your best line of defense in these kinds of cases is to act quickly and hire an experienced maritime lawyer in Florida. Maritime lawsuits are complicated, and we are adept at uncovering the proper evidence to support our clients in their pursuit of justice. If you have been in a waterway accident and have suffered significant losses, we would like to listen to your case. Contact the Madalon Law offices today and set up your appointment with a maritime lawyer.

After a person has been injured, they are often overwhelmed, confused, and in pain.  During this difficult time, the injured party is often worried about how they should proceed.  The last thing they would imagine is being sued by the owner of the vessel on which they were injured.   This scenario is a possibility under the notion of “limitation of liability.” 

Vessel owners can utilize this law to limit their liability in the wake of an accident, impacting the injured party’s ability to recover damages.  For this reason, it is vital that a person who is injured seek an admiralty attorney who is familiar with maritime law and the Jones Act. 


Under the law, a vessel owner can limit their liability in the event of an accident by utilizing the concept of “privity and knowledge.” In these cases, a vessel owner is allowed to limit their liability in cases unless the injury occurred due to “privity or knowledge.”   This would mean that the vessel owner can only be found liable if the unseaworthiness or negligence that caused the accident was “known or should have been known” by the owner.

Vessel owners are allowed to apply this law on most waterways, including rivers and lakes, as well as the ocean.  This law does not apply to waterways that are not considered “navigable.”  Navigable waters are those that are subject to the tide or are used or have been used for transport or commerce.  An attorney experienced in maritime law will be able to help you determine if this act applies in your case.


Using limitation of liability can be very beneficial for a vessel owner.  If an accident occurs between two vessels and injuries are sustained by multiple persons, the owner of the vessel at fault can seek to limit their liability against all the injured parties only the amount equal to the value of the boat after the accident. One could see how troublesome this could be as the value of the damaged boat is most likely not anywhere near the value of the damage incurred by the injured parties.

Vessel owners, however, may not limit liability on “maintenance and cure” for employees that are injured.  They also may not limit liability for personal contracts, vessel repairs, or wages that they owe.

It should be noted that there is a statute of limitations on a vessel owner’s ability to file claims to limit liability.  They need to file their claim within six months of receiving notice that a damage claim is being filed and exceeds that value of the vessel after it has been damaged.


If you or someone you know has been injured while on a sea vessel, the maritime accident attorneys at Madalon Law are knowledgeable and experienced in maritime law. They will be able to answer questions that you may have about liability and help you determine your best course of action.

The Fort Lauderdale accident attorneys of Madalon Law handle cases in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.