Can I Sue My Marine Surveyor Over a Shoddy Used Boat Survey?

Posted: October 9, 2012  |  By: David Weil, Esq.

I recently bought a boat over the Internet. I never saw the boat in person before the purchase, but I hired a marine surveyor to inspect the boat -- so, I figured he would look out for my interests. Unfortunately, the surveyor missed a long list of pretty obvious problems. The boat had diesel and lube oil in the bilge, chain plates were rusted out and the surveyor misdiagnosed a defect in the steering system. This was all really basic stuff that I noticed as soon as I boarded the boat after the purchase. I now own a boat that I can’t use without investing a lot of money in repairs. There must be a rule against a misleading or inaccurate survey. Can I sue? Can the surveyor lose his license? 
This scenario raises a number of problems that need to be addressed before we answer our reader’s specific question.             

First, no one should ever buy a boat without first going aboard and looking at things it with their own eyes. That sounds fairly obvious, but in this age of eBay and Craigslist, people are attracted to “bargains” that may require a purchase commitment without taking a look at the boat in person. These deals are usually done without a broker and, as such, the purchase contract is, at best, extremely ambiguous. Often, there is no contract at all, so there is little recourse for a disgruntled buyer.             

Second, the marine surveyor in this case took a risk, regardless of whether he performed a competent survey or not. The purpose of a pre-purchase marine survey is to evaluate the physical condition of the boat and to appraise the value, both of which may theoretically be done without any input from the buyer. But a surveyor needs to work with a buyer in person, to evaluate the buyer’s needs and concerns and to confirm that the boat in question will meet those needs. When a surveyor inspects a boat without ever meeting his client, he may overlook things that are not a routine part of the inspection but are nonetheless important to the client. That does not seem to be an issue in our reader’s case, but the surveyor and the buyer nonetheless need to work as a team.             

As for our reader’s specific questions, we can start by correcting a fairly common mistake. Marine surveyors are not regulated by any government agency and there are no “rules against misleading or inaccurate surveys,” as suggested by our reader. There is no licensing requirement, and anyone with a voltmeter and a ball peen hammer can hang up a sign tomorrow and call himself a marine surveyor.             

This lack of government oversight may be traced to the wide range of services performed by surveyors, and the practical obstacles to the regulation of those services through one agency. Most boat owners will need a surveyor when they buy a boat, and for insurance renewal purposes. However, a surveyor may be called upon to survey large commercial vessels, evaluate compliance with regulatory requirements, perform marine insurance investigations, including investigations for lost or stolen cargo from merchant ships, and testify as expert witnesses in litigation. No surveyor is qualified to perform all these tasks, and no one regulatory agency would want to take on the task of licensing or oversight of such a varied profession.             

The lack of any regulatory oversight for surveyors does not necessarily leave our reader with no recourse against the surveyor, and he may be able to make a claim or file a lawsuit for negligence.             

A lawsuit for negligence would be evaluated by determining whether a reasonably qualified person in the same situation would have conducted the survey and prepared a report in a way that would have alerted our reader to the problems with the boat. We can’t answer that question with the information provided to us, but, in fact, most lawsuits for negligence require testimony by expert witnesses to establish the elements of the claim.             

In the end, our reader will probably need to contact an experienced maritime attorney, who will be in a better position to evaluate any possible claim of negligence after a careful review of the file and consultation with an expert witness.

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