Although the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill has had less environmental impact on Florida than many feared, new legislation moving through Congress related to the incident could have a lasting effect on Florida’s maritime industries and the people who work there.

In June, a bill called the SPILL Act passed the House with wide support, on a simple voice vote. The bill would amend the Death on the High Seas Act of 1920 to allow families of those who die at sea to sue not just for pecuniary damages-in other words, lost wages and funeral expenses-but also for non-pecuniary damages, such as loss of care, comfort, and companionship. It would also allow compensation for the pain and suffering of the person who died. When the Act was first enacted in 1920, it was a boon to families of deceased sailors, as it allowed them to sue the vessel owners who were responsible. But since then its application has not been greatly expanded, and its current limitation to pecuniary damages is seen by many as unfair. The cruise industry has repeatedly blocked previous attempts to expand the protections of the law, fearing it would leave them open to lawsuits from the families of passengers who died from cruise ship injuries while on board.

The SPILL Act also would eliminate provisions of the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. This law was enacted to protect shipping companies from liability in the days before modern protection & indemnity insurance. The law limits the liability of any shipowner to the value of the vessel at the end of the voyage. For instance, the law was used after the Titanic sunk. This meant that the most that the owners of the Titanic could be sued for by survivors and families of those who died was the value of the remaining lifeboats-a paltry $92,000. Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, is attempting to use the law to limit their own liability to the families of those who died in the explosion.

Changes to these two laws could have a lasting effect on the legal rights of those whose work involves the Port of Miami, Port Everglades, and the Port of Key West. But while the SPILL Act passed the House easily, many of its provisions, along with other maritime and environmental laws, have been combined in a new Senate bill which differs somewhat from the version passed in the House. Whether it is passed-and reconciled with the House version-when the current Congress reconvenes to wrap up its business for this legislative session after the elections remains to be seen. But whether taken up in this session or the next, given the substantial public outcry over the Deepwater Horizon incident, some change to these existing maritime laws is likely.

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