The Bounty: Recklessness vs. negligence

The probable cause of the sinking of the tall ship Bounty was a reckless decision by the captain to sail into the forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy. 

That’s what the National Transportation Safety Board concluded recently in its findings on the tragic October 2012 loss of the tall ship some 110 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The NTSB said that a lack of effective safety oversight was also a contributing factor. The ill-fated sailing vessel was a replica of the original Bounty, built for the 1962 film about the historic 18th century mutiny. 

In describing the conduct that led to the loss as reckless, the NTSB used a term that is legally more serious than the standard of negligence, something we typically see in Jones Act cases and general cargo damage claims.

The difference between the two is one of scale. Recklessness is a few notches higher up on the legal wrongdoing yardstick. But the difference also is in an element known as state of mind. This is further complicated because the terms are also used in criminal settings, with additional implications.

Recklessness usually involves conduct where a known risk exists and is ignored. Generally, negligence is a breach of a duty to act in a certain manner. It has four elements: duty, breach of duty, damages and a connection between the breach of duty and ensuing damages.

For example, if a vessel operator decided to increase speed in restricted waters to make up for lost time, it would be reckless. The operator recognizes the risk posed by such conduct, but disregards it. On the other hand, if a vessel operator makes a miscalculation in plotting a course and allides with a bridge, that’s negligence. In the first scenario, the risk is recognized and ignored.

A recklessness finding could lead to greater fault on the part of the wrongdoer, increasing the damages to which a victim would be entitled and possibly opening the door to punitive damages. In criminal proceedings, a finding of recklessness could result in stiffer penalties and sentences than criminal negligence. 

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at john@fulweilerlaw.com . His website is www.saltwaterlaw.com.

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