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Shipborne accidents may be covered by 168-year-old law

Every American knows that we declared independence in 1776, and the Constitution guaranteed our rights a few years later. But most of the laws we know beyond the Bill of Rights are modern, often no more than a few decades old. But where do some of the older and lesser known laws apply to our lives?

One place where old laws often reign is on the seas off the coast of Louisiana and the other U.S. states with shorelines. A state’s territorial sea extends 12 nautical miles, or nearly 14 statute miles, off of its land into the water. Beyond that, things can get complicated.

Laws of a ship’s flag country apply on the ship when it is international waters. A country’s responsibility for its ships at sea is a concept that has existed for hundreds of years, but a slightly more recent law has been recently invoked to describe the limits of liability for the owner of waterborne vessels.

The death of 34 people on a dive boat off the coast of California is reviving an American law from the middle of the 19th century. The Limitation of Shipowners’ Liability Act, which became U.S. law in 1851, has applied to several historic sinkings. It states that liability is limited to the value of the vessel and its freight at the end of a trip if the owner did not know of a problem with it before an accident.

Victims of accidents on ships may seek legal representation to help enforce claims for damages. An attorney can help examine the details of a case complicated by the waves.