18 persons were saved after a whale watch tour vessel sank near Juneau on Sunday. The vessel “Big Red” was owned by Dolphin Jet Boat Tours. The vessel reportedly sank within minutes of striking a submerged object in shallow water near Aron Island . The 16 passengers were directed to put on life vests by the two vessel crewmen and were reportedly able to be transferred to another good samaritan vessel before the Big Red sank. One crewman aboard the vessel reports being in the water for nearly twenty minutes before being rescued. Several passengers were also reported to have been rescued from the water. No other reported injuries are known at this time.
The area of the sinking is marked as a shallow area on navigational charts and is known to have rocks just below the water surface which are not visible during high tide. The accident happened approximately a half hour before high tide. The captain of the vessel, Kimball Ho, has been faulted by witnesses and the vessel owner in news reports for making an error in judgement resulting in the vessel striking rocks in area known to contain a submerged rock reef. The owner of the vessel has stated that the jet powered vessels such as the Big Red are designed and capable of operation in shallow water and concluded that the vessel must have hit a rock just below the water line.
The vessel reportedly sank within five minutes of striking the submerged rocks. The casualty is under investigation by the United States Coast Guard. New reports indicate the captain of the vessel has been fired by the vessel owners and operators.
Because this accident happened on navigable waters and involves a commercial passenger vessel the matter will be governed by Federal regulations and Federal Maritime law. In these circumstances, the insurance companies representing the owners of vessel’s such as the Big Red frequently file Federal Petitions for Limitation of Liability, 46 USC 30505. Under the Limitation of Liability Act vessel owners claim they have no responsibility for passenger or crewman injuries, arguing they lacked privity and knowledge of the operational negligent acts of the captain of the vessel. Filing a Limitation of Liability Petition also is used as a tactical tool to force all claimants into one proceeding to determine the liability issues relating to the vessel loss. Experienced maritime injury lawyers are familiar with the facts and legal arguments that can utilized to defeat Petitions for Limitation of Liability.