In the event of a maritime accident in which one party sues another party for negligence in relation to the accident, the Federal District Court hearing the case is tasked with determining what obligations the defendant had when the accident occurred. If the defendant owed a specific duty of care to the plaintiff, the defendant is liable for damages resulting from the accident; if not, the defendant is not obligated.
A recent case discussed a question in respect of obligations of the owner of a boat. As a general rule, the United States Supreme Court stated in the case of Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique from 1959 : “We hold that the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances of each case.”
At the same time, the Eleventh Circuit in the case Weissman v. Boating Magazine from 1991 stated that a passenger has no obligation to be a lookout for the captain or driver of the boat. In its simplest form, this means that someone who is riding in the boat is not negligent if he or she does not alert the captain to a possible harm.
In the recent case of Holzhauer v. Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation, Harry Holzhauer was steering a ship owned by his friend David Rhoades in the Bay by San Francisco. Rhoades did not inform Holzhauer about a possible collision with a ferry. The boat and the ferry collided, which killed Holzhauer. Mary Holzhauer, the wife of the late David Holzhauer, sued Rhoades for negligence, claiming that he should have warned Harry Holzhauer about the possible collision.
Rhoades, the defendant, countered that he is not responsible for what happened to Holzhauer because, based on the Weissman case, a passenger has no duty to be a lookout for a captain of the ship. Because he had no such duty of care, Rhoades claimed, he was not legally negligent for the collision and therefore bears no financial responsibility for the tragic accident.
Mary Holzhauer cited the Kermac case that an owner of a ship is responsible to the passengers of the ship. She claimed that this applies to being a lookout as well.
The District Court and the Ninth Circuit considered this case and tried to determine the balance with respect to a ship owner who is a passenger on a boat between the Weissman case that holds that a passenger has no duty to be a lookout for a ship whereas the Kermac case states that an owner has a duty of care to all those on the boat.
The Court ruled in favor of Rhoades, reasoning that when an owner who is also a passenger acts as a passenger then he has no duty to be a lookout. Rhoades, as an owner, had a duty to entrust the boat in the hands of someone competent and there is nothing suggesting otherwise when he let Holzhauer steer the ship. As a passenger, however, he had no duty to be a lookout.
Involved in a maritime accident? Contact the Kolodny law firm, a maritime accident firm.