Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

First Page



The legislative history of the maritime limitation of liability statutes, both in the United States and in England, is uncomplicated. The original sources are available, and in several important opinions, the Supreme Court of the United States has set forth the history of the limitation statutes. Limitation of liability to the value of the owner's interest in the vessel and freight is a principle that springs solely from the general maritime law, and was not recognized either at common law or by the civil law.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say when and where the idea of limitation of liability originated. At common law, as administered both in England and America, the personal liability of the owner of a vessel for damages by collision was the same as in other cases of negligence, and was limited only by the amount of the loss and by the owner's ability to respond. The civil law as well made no distinction in favor of ship owners, nor did the ancient laws of the merchant leagues of Oleron or Wisby or the Hanse towns suggest any restriction upon such liability. By the end of the seventeenth century, limitation of liability had become firmly established among the leading maritime nations of Europe. The French Ordinance of 1681 served as a model for most of the modem maritime codes, and declared that the owners of the ship would be answerable for the acts of the master, but they would be discharged therefrom on relinquishing the ship and freight.