February 3, 2023
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Maritime reform bills passed inspired by Conception Boat Fire

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The Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Dec. 23.

The measure, championed by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Ventura, was crafted in response to the 2019 Conception boat fire off the Central Coast. 

The law is meant to reform maritime liability laws to allow for victims of boating disasters and their families to receive compensation from those responsible for the accident. The law amends existing legislation from 1851 that held the owner of a vessel may not be held financially accountable for any losses incurred, including loss of life, because the boat had no value following its destruction. 

The measure was included in the final fiscal year 2023 defense policy bill, which passed the House and Senate in a notably bipartisan vote over the last few weeks. 

Due to alterations made to the bill prior to initial passage, the new legislation will only apply to future liability claims. 

While the period of time during which victims can file a claim has increased from six months to two years, this still means the families of the 34 people killed in the Conception boat fire will not be able to seek damages from the boat owner. 

The bill was drafted with guidance and support from the Coast Guard and the Justice Department. In the months following the incident, Carbajal, Feinstein and Brownley introduced the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, meant to raise the safety standards on vessels similar in scope to the Conception. That bill became law in Jan. of 2021. 

“As Chairman of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, I’m proud to see important reforms that I’ve fought for signed by President Biden today – including long-overdue updates to maritime liability laws that have denied victims’ families compensation for wrongful deaths at sea,” Carbajal said in a press release.

“This is an important change inspired by the families of the 34 precious lives lost on the Conception in 2019, that will ensure families of future maritime disasters do not face the same antiquated laws when seeking the support they deserve.”