US House Passes Constitutionally Conservative Bill Updating Maritime Liability Laws

Yesterday, the U.S. House passed, by a voice vote, the “Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act,” or “SPILL Act” (H.R. 5503), which enables the families of workers killed in the BP disaster and others injured by maritime disasters to hold those negligent responsible without outdated and inequitable limits on recoveries. Specifically, the Act enables victims of maritime accidents to recover damages in the same way as victims of accidents on land can in state courts, by:

(1) amending the Death on the High Seas Act to allow recovery of noneconomic damages for maritime death;

(2) repealing the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act, which allows Transocean to claim responsibility for only $27 million in damages, and;

(3) enabling seamens’ surviving family members to recover noneconomic damages of loss of care, comfort and companionship under the Jones Act.

The SPILL Act is perfectly consistent with principles of Constitutional conservatism in that it (1) upholds the 7th Amendment rights of the injured to bring their civil cases to a jury for decision; (2) doesn’t add a single dollar or bureaucrat to the federal budget; (3) doesn’t add any federal enforcement mechanism, with the victims’ rights to be enforced only in “the legal marketplace of ideas” before a jury of their peers applying state law.

House passage was the result of a combination of grassroots support and careful compromise by the bill’s sponsors to win support from more Congressmen. The BP victims’s families’ contacted the Congress early and often, and their pleas for help were enforced by calls from residents in the Gulf Coast area and supportive letters from the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children and the National Center for Victims of Crime. And Chairman Conyers of the Judiciary Committee removed two sections from the version approved by the Committee, in order to mollify concerns of various critics (some of which continued to oppose the bill anyway).

Now the action moves to the Senate. During a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday, prior to the House voice vote, two Republican Senators said they generally approved of enabling victims of maritime accidents to recover in the same way as victims of land-based accidents. I like the chances of passage of the SPILL Act, or something closely resembling it, by the Senate.