Can Boat Owners Rely on an “Act of God” to Avoid Hurricane Sally Liability?
With boats strewn all over the Alabama and Florida coastline from the unsuspecting ferocity of Hurricane Sally, many are asking the question: Is a boat owner liable to a landowner for damage caused by the unmoored boat in a hurricane? An unpublished 5th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion provides a well written analysis to answer this question. In Simmons v. Berglin, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 23499, a sailboat became unmoored from its dock during Hurricane Katrina, washed ashore, and damaged the Plaintiffs’ property. Finding for the sailboat owner, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the unmooring and resulting damage was an Act of God.
In reaching its conclusion, the Simmons Court, first, acknowledged a presumption that has existed in admiralty law for well over 150 years – there is a presumption that when a moving vessel causes damage to a stationary object, the moving vessel is at fault. This said, the Court, also, pointed out a drifting vessel may overcome this presumption with evidence that “the accident could not have been prevented by human skill and precaution and proper display of nautical skill.” In other words, if a boat owner undertook reasonable preparations in anticipation of an impending hurricane, the boat owner will be relieved from liability as the damage resulted from an Act of God.
The facts found in the Simmons case are analogous to the stories being shared following Hurricane Sally. As such, the factual analysis in Simmons can be readily applied to those seeking claims against boat owners in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally. In that case, the Court’s recognition of the high storm surge recordings in the area where the sailboat was docked was, undoubtedly, a significant factor in its decision. Too, an important factor in the Court’s rationale was its acknowledgment of the testimony from the two men who made hurricane preparations to the sailboat – both were found to be well experienced mariners. Finally, the Court assessed the devastation inflicted upon the docks and boats in the area where the sail boat was moored in finding the damage resulted from an Act of God.
In conclusion, for a landowner to present a claim against a boat owner for damage caused by his/her’s unmoored boat in a Hurricane Sally, it will, first, be necessary for the landowner to prove the boat owner failed to undertake reasonable preparations. For example, those boats that were poorly anchored resulting in damage to landowners may be liable for damages. However, know the court may balance a mariner’s inexperience with the fact Hurricane Sally brought a significant storm surge in Alabama and Florida causing devastation upon docks and boats throughout the area in finding for the boat owner, instead of the landowner. Simply put, the landowner will have to overcome an assumption that Hurricane Sally subjected all local mariners to an Act of God. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Boteler Richardson Wolfe
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