Your Legal Obligations during a Storm
by David Pascoe
Most people are probably quite unaware that they may actually have legal obligations for what happens to their boats, or rather what their boats do to other property, during a hurricane. Such obligations have been demonstrated in numerous court cases.
There is a well-established legal doctrine that almost everything that happens during a storm is classified as an “Act of God.” That means that if your roof blows off onto someone else’s house, you are not responsible for that damage. However, negligent behavior is excluded from that doctrine if resulting damage was preventable by taking reasonable precautions.
The most famous case was that of a barge owner who anchored his large barge in a bayou and took no extra measures when a storm came up. The barge broke loose and wrecked a large factory and the barge owner was held liable.
There are numerous examples of yacht owners who failed to take any, or reasonable precautions to secure their vessels, wherein a court ruled that they were liable for damages caused by their vessels despite the storm. Thus, a boat owner who decides to abandon his boat to his insurance company just to get rid of it, he risks not only a possible denial of his insurance claim, but a law suit for any damages his vessel may cause.
In one case that I was involved in, a homeowner who just happened to be a retired lawyer rented out his dock to an out-of-state boat owner. Big mistake there, right? Well our lawyer friend called the boat owner to advise him of the storms approach, not once but three times, getting an answering machine each time. But he did something else, too: he recorded his phone calls.
As expected, the boat owner did nothing to secure the boat, and as the homeowner was in a wheel chair, was not able to do it, though he had asked a neighbor for help, wasn’t able to get any. Thus the homeowner made a prudent, if failed effort. Well, that boat wrecked the swimming pool and patio before ending up in the living room. Then the real fun began. The boat owner filed a claim for the storm damages to both the boat and the liability claim by the homeowner. But for the homeowner’s allegation that the boat owner failed to secure his boat, the insurer probably would never have known. But now they’ve got a liability claim on their hands from a homeowner angry about the boat owner abandoning his boat.
company denied the hull claim based on breach of contract because
the insured failed to protect his property, leaving him without
liability coverage also. The boat owner sued the insurer and the
homeowner sued the boat owner who lost both contests. The damage
assessed to the boat owner’s negligence was $78,000.
Similarly, if a boat breaks loose and plows into a dozen other boats for want of taking action in the face of a storm, that boat owner may be also held liable.
A boat owner is legally required to take “reasonable and prudent” actions to prevent his property from damaging others. Reasonable and prudent means such actions as any experienced boater would take, not a half-hearted effort for appearances sake. There are thousands of people who buy boats, park them somewhere far from home, and then forget about them, figuring that because it is insured, they can just forget about it and collect the insurance when it gets wrecked. That kind of thinking can cost one dearly.
- Safe Harbor
- What to do if Your Boat Is Hurricane Damaged
- Storm Damaged Boats
- Marine Investigations: Chapter 4- Marine
Insurance and Issues of Law
Posted September 1, 2004
David Pascoe - Biography