Limitation of Shipowner’s Liability: The State (Court) We’re In

Michael T. Amy | Comment

Under the law of the United States, a shipowner has the right to limit its liability for damages following a marine casualty in accordance with the provisions of the Limitation of Vessel Owner’s Liability Act of *158 1851 (Limitation Act or Act). Generally, the Act permits a vessel owner to limit its liability for any claim, debt, or liability enumerated in the Act up to the value of its vessel and pending freight.2 The shipowner’s ability to limit its liability, however, hinges upon whether it had privity or knowledge of the cause of the casualty.

The Limitation Act and Supplemental Rule F of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure set forth the procedures for properly instituting and litigating a limitation action. To properly commence a limitation proceeding, a shipowner must file a complaint within six months of the date it received written notice of any claim arising from the casualty. The limitation complaint may be filed in any federal district court in which the vessel has been attached or arrested or, if the vessel has not been attached or arrested, in any district in which the owner has been sued in connection with the casualty. In some instances, however, such as when the six-month window has lapsed or when there is only one potential claimant, several state courts have allowed a shipowner to assert limitation of liability as an affirmative defense in the claimant’s state court proceeding without having filed a complaint in federal court.

While permitting a vessel owner to plead limitation of liability defensively in state court is a relatively new jurisprudential trend, it seems to have developed strong roots. As such, this Comment will explore state court jurisdiction over limitation of liability issues and address the ability of a state court jury to make limitation determinations in light of the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal’s implicit endorsement of a jury’s capacity to decide whether a shipowner was entitled to limitation of liability.8 Before delving into the current status of the Limitation Act as it pertains to state court jurisdiction, however, it is necessary to discuss the evolution of the Act and jurisprudence leading up to the present day.