Can I Hold My Captain Liable for Negligent Engine Damage?

Posted: January 30, 2013

I purchased a 40-foot trawler yacht a few months ago and, since I am a novice boater, my insurance company required me to hire a captain to run the boat while I get a little more experience under my belt. The general manager of my marina suggested that I hire the marina dockmaster, who has a captain’s license and who apparently has a lot of experience with boats like mine. He took us out on a recent trip to Catalina and we, unfortunately, ran into a significant mechanical problem during the trip. The engine started to overheat after a couple of hours, and the captain continued to run the boat without checking anything. We picked up a mooring in Avalon, and he told us that the engine would cool down while we were ashore having lunch, and everything would be fine after that. While we were ashore, we assumed that he would look for the source of the problem -- but we were wrong. We returned to the boat and started our return voyage, but the engine seized halfway across and we had to be towed back to our dock. The engine is a total loss, and we are now looking at a huge estimate to repower the boat. It seems to us that this whole thing could have been avoided if the captain had fixed the overheating problem when it first arose. Can we hold the captain and the marina liable for the damage? 
Our reader seeks to hold his captain and the marina liable for the replacement of the engine because he feels they should have done something to prevent the incident. He is basically claiming that they were negligent, and he is seeking guidance in pursuing a claim for damages based on that negligence.             

A negligence claim requires the damaged party to prove four essential elements. First, he or she must prove that the other person or persons owed a particular duty to the damaged party to act in a particular way.             

The damaged party must then prove that the person failed to act as a reasonably competent person under the same circumstances would have acted; that they did, in fact, suffer some form of injury or financial damage; and that the other person’s actions or failure to act caused that damage.             

In this case, the captain certainly owed a duty to the boat owner to operate the boat competently. But did that obligation include monitoring the mechanical condition of the boat?             

This answer is not always crystal clear. The captain was not hired as an engine mechanic, and his boat handling and navigational skills are not in question.             

These questions may be answered by looking to a written contract or the discussions between the parties at the beginning of the project, but they often require the testimony of an expert witness to establish the industry standard for a particular endeavor. The expert could be a respected engine mechanic or perhaps a marine surveyor who specializes in the investigation of engine claims.
In this case, we can probably assume that a captain’s duties included the monitoring of engine gauges to confirm that coolant temperature and oil pressure were within acceptable ranges.             

The next question is a little more complicated. Did the captain act as a reasonably competent captain would have acted after discovering the overheating problem?             

To answer that question, we probably need to know the cause of the overheating. If it was an intermittent problem, perhaps it could have been cured by a couple of hours of down time on a mooring. Or not. We have the benefit of hindsight at this point, but again, we probably need an expert witness to testify as to whether a competent captain would have done something different with the information that was available at the time.             

The next element -- was our reader damaged? -- is pretty simple, since we know that he needs to repower the boat. But was the damage to the engine caused by the captain’s action or inaction?             

It seems likely, in this case, that we will be able to prove the “causation” element. But what if the engine was already at the end of its useful life -- in which case it may have failed at any moment, even without this incident. Again, we may need to rely on expert testimony.             

Our reader has also asked whether he can pursue a suit against the marina over the incident, since the captain worked at the marina as a dockmaster and the marina manager referred the captain to our reader.             

Employers may, under certain circumstances, be held “vicariously liable” for the acts of their employees. However, in this case, the captain was not acting as a marina employee but was instead employed by our reader. The liability of the marina or its general manager would, therefore, be based upon their own possible negligence for their referral of the captain to our reader.             

Once again, we need to look at the basic elements of a negligence claim that we discussed above. But a “negligent referral” is hard to prove, unless the reputation of the person being referred is so bad and so widely known that no reasonable person would have made the referral. That does not seem to be the case here.             

Finally, our reader glossed over this, but he did make reference to his insurance company requiring an experienced captain to run the boat while he gained more experience. This is a common requirement of marine insurance policies when the boat owner is a novice boater.             

In this case, it appears that our reader complied with this condition, which means that the boat was probably fully insured. But our reader has overlooked the possibility that his insurance may cover the damage to the engine.             

He would need to establish that the damage was caused by an identifiable incident (such as a plastic bag being sucked into the raw water intake) rather than normal wear and tear, but the possibility of insurance coverage should never be overlooked when a boat owner is facing a significant repair.

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