Pre-Civil War era maritime law re-enters headlines

Frank S. Clowney III

The year was 1838. Martin Van Buren was in the White House, California wouldn’t become a state for 12 more years, and Major League Baseball wouldn’t play ball for another 31 years. 1838 was also the year that lawmakers signed the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute into law.

Thirty-three people tragically perished in a boat fire earlier this year in California and prosecutors plan to use the statute to charge the owners of the vessel. While rare, prosecution teams have successfully applied the statute to similar cases since the early 2000s.

What does the statute do?

There are many laws that are in place to hold people responsible for things like wrongful death. The statute here holds a boat owner, inspector, or charterer liable for a person’s death if their negligence, misconduct, or breaking the law caused their loss of life. A court may also find a corporation’s executives liable if a company owns the vessel.

If a court finds the owner guilty, they can face fines and up to 10 years in prison.

These cases illustrate the importance of boat owners obeying the law and ensuring that their vessels are up to code to ensure the safety of themselves and their crew. Staying away from fraudulent activities, breaking the law, and negligence are great ways to avoid punishment under the Seaman’s Manslaughter statute.

Old laws can still have relevance

Despite lawmakers publishing the law in the same year Charles Dickens published Oliver Twist, it still has relevance today. However, you hope that prosecutors aren’t applying the law often because it usually means something tragic has happened.