I am a licensed captain and a partner in a company that operates a six-pack sportfishing boat. My partner owns the boat, and our arrangement calls for me to run the boat and for us to split the profits and losses equally. I was recently injured aboard the boat and I’ve had a falling out with my partner over the compensation that I feel is due to me as a consequence of the injury. I would like to file a lawsuit to enforce a maritime lien for my injury, but I am concerned that my status as captain of the boat may complicate things. Can you give me advice on how to proceed?
We have discussed the complexities of maritime lien law in many installments of this column, but we always seem to find a new twist in the law to talk about. Most of our previous discussions have concerned mortgage liens, or liens for services rendered to the boat, but maritime liens may arise from other events, including claims for salvage, towing, crew wages and personal injuries suffered aboard the boat. Our reader may, therefore, be able to assert a maritime lien against the boat, but his claim will be complicated by several issues. A hired captain may assert a lien against a boat under many circumstances, but an owner may not assert a lien against his or her own boat. This probably seems like common sense, but “ownership” in this context extends beyond the question of whether someone’s name is on the title. Here, our reader was not an owner of the boat, but he was an equal partner in the company that operated the boat in a charter business. The law is clear that a member of a boat partnership, or even a joint venture that operates a boat, holds a sufficient interest in the boat to preclude that person from asserting a maritime lien against a boat. The exact nature of the relationship in some of these cases may be difficult to establish, but if, for example, a partnership tax return is issued to the captain, it should be fairly clear that he is a partner rather than just a hired hand. Our reader may have a claim against the boat owner, even if he is unable to assert a lien against the boat. A maritime lien is a security device that provides collateral for the collection of a successful claim against the boat owner. But the validity of the claim itself is not necessarily dependant upon the existence of a maritime lien. And, as we have discussed in prior installments of this column, the foreclosure of a maritime lien is a very expensive endeavor and it may not be economically feasible, even where the lien is clearly valid. Our reader did not explain the nature of the incident that led to his injury, but if he can establish that the owner’s negligence was a contributing factor to the incident, he may be able to sue the owner without pursuing a lien against the boat. A suit like this could be brought in state or federal court, and it would look a lot like a lawsuit for injuries suffered on dry land, such as in a car accident. As noted above, a hired captain may file suit to recover for injuries aboard the vessel he works on, but the boat owner has certain defenses against that suit, particularly in a case like our reader has described. A seaman may not recover from the boat owner for injuries caused by the seaman’s own failure to perform a duty imposed on him by his employment. This is known as the “primary duty doctrine,” and where it is imposed, any secondary negligence of the vessel owner or claim of unseaworthiness of the vessel is ignored. Since our reader was the captain and sole crewman aboard the boat, he may well have been responsible for the equipment that caused his injury. The primary duty doctrine was imposed, for example, in a 2004 case in Texas where a plaintiff slipped because of missing skid-resistant tape that he had a duty to ensure was in place. Like any legal claim, the rights and options of our reader will depend on the facts of his case — and we really can’t render specific legal advice in response to a couple of sentences describing a case. However, our discussion here should give him some direction in advance of a meeting with a qualified maritime attorney to evaluate his options.