Limitation of Liability Act of 1851
Not so fast on that repeal bill
The Limitation of Liability Act, now located at 46 U.S. Code sections 30501-30512, was adopted to provide shipowners a measure of protection if their ships were to cause injury or damage to others in cases where the shipowners have no privity or knowledge relative to the cause of the incident. Congress enacted the statute in 1851 to encourage investment in the marine industry. At that time, ships departed on voyages sometimes lasting three years and the owners had no ready means of communicating with the masters until the ships returned to homeport. Many things have changed in the past 159 years, including the ability of owners to keep tabs on their vessels. That almost instantaneous communications capability means that fewer things are outside the privity and knowledge of the owner. As a result of the tragic events surrounding the explosion and fire on the MODU Deepwater Horizon with the loss of eleven lives, bills have been introduced in Congress that would, if enacted into law, repeal major portions of the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act. While I have no personal or professional stake in this issue, I do have a certain reverence for the law and for orderly processes. There have been no real hearings in Congress on these proposed amendments to a venerable statute. There has been no debate of any kind on the floor of the House or Senate. We should not be rushing to the judgment that the best way to fix an old statute is to repeal it outright, let alone make that repeal retroactive. There is no need to enact a repeal of this statute within the next month, as things appear to be headed. I recommend that Congress slow down this particular measure, conduct one or more hearings, and debate the points on the record. If, when this has been completed, Congress still determines that repeal is the appropriate course of action, so be it. But it borders on the unseemly for Congress to act unnecessarily in such a precipitous manner.