171-year-old maritime law reform clears first hurdle

Passing a Coastguard Funding Act on Tuesday afternoon included reforms to the 171-year-old Maritime Act that protects shipowners from damages in maritime disasters by limiting payments to value of the ship. This legislation from the House of Representatives is directly due to the 34 deaths on board the Design dive boat, Congressman Salud Carbajal said of the funding authorization, but the bipartisan bill was unable to make its provisions retroactive to 2019, when the Design burned to the waterline and sank, killing all of her passengers and one crew member.

“Unfortunately, during bipartisan negotiations on this package, some felt that making this change retroactive to all past maritime accidents, as I had proposed, would go too far,” Carbajal said on the House floor. “I completely disagree with that line of thinking, especially when it comes to getting justice for the families of the victims – but I think fixing our laws for the future will be the best way to prove to them that they are wrong. Whether through the conference process or additional legislation, I will continue to advocate for this change to be made retroactive to allow restitution to the families of Design victims I have worked with and come to know over the past three years. I promised them to keep fighting and I will keep that promise.

Congressman Salud Carbajal (right) speaks with members of the Coast Guard before a hearing held at Santa Barbara City Hall on March 23, 2022. | Credit: Courtesy

Carbajal said that the Design caused “the greatest loss of life… in decades” following a maritime disaster in the United States. The wording of the reform requires owners of small passenger vessels to be liable for damages in future accidents and incidents, regardless of the vessel’s value, a statement from Carbajal’s office explained. The bill also extends the claim period from six months to two years.

Overall, the bill gives the Coast Guard an increase in its annual budget from $11.5 billion to $12.8 billion in 2022 and $13.9 billion in 2023, funding increases advocated during a hearing held in Santa Barbara concerning the Design Last week. The Don Young Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022 is now heading to the Senate.

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