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Two Willamette Jetboat tour vessels collided head-on. Now a controversial law could block passengers' lawsuits.

PMG FILE PHOTO - This 2004 photo shows a jetboat skimming across the Willamette River, giving a tour of the Portland waterfront.

On a cloudy Portland day, one jet boat on the Willamette River carried a group of Tualatin elementary school students and their parents. The other boat transported tourists, including a Canadian pop star.

Rounding a narrow curve from opposite directions at high speed, the two vessels struck each other headfirst, injuring several passengers, including at least one child.

Now the high-profile Portland company that owned both boats, Willamette Jetboat Excursions, is asking a federal judge to protect it from costly lawsuits, asserting that passengers' injuries from the accident "were not caused or contributed to by the fault and negligence" of the company or its crews.

The boats were operated "in a safe and conscientious manner and according to all applicable United States Federal and State laws," the company contends.PMG FILE PHOTO - A Willamette jet boat shown in 2013.

The accident and litigation, which have not been previously reported, sheds light on a 170-year-old law that limits boat-owners' legal exposure. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal introduced federal legislation to eliminate it late last month.

Willamette Jetboat Excursions declined to comment for the article, as did a lawyer for the company, Kurt Peterson of the law firm Harrang Long.

Willamette Jetboat's trademark blue vessels have become a staple of the Portland scene over the last decade. They zip across the Willamette and other waterways at speeds of 40 miles per hour or more. Tickets cost $55, or $40 for children 11 and under.

Elementary school group

On June 4, Andrea Haslewood and her 11-year-old daughter were excited to celebrate the end of the school season. From the tour company's launch site, they boarded the Osprey jet boat with two dozen other kids and parents. All of them were celebrating the end of classes at MITCH Charter School, part of the Tigard-Tualatin School District.

The boat sped south to Oregon City, then turned back north. The company advertises lots of "'going fast and spins and you're going to get wet,' and that's you know, the fun," Haslewood said. "And it was really fun."

That ended at a narrow curve.

"We were going high speed along the left side of the riverbank on the Willamette," Haslewood recalled, "We came around a blind corner and another boat from the same company hit us head on."

When the boats collided, the bow of the larger Peregrine Falcon climbed over the bow of the Osprey, shattering its plexiglass windshield and injuring some of the parents sitting in the front row of the tour boat, according to Haslewood.

"The front of the boat was completely mangled," she said.

"A lot of the kids were pretty shaken and really scared … I found out later that a lot of the kids had dislocated fingers and … bumps and bruises," she said.

"My daughter broke her arm."

Injured include "Bad day" songwriter

Passengers on the Peregrine Falcon were injured as well, according to a lawsuit filed in July.

Among the plaintiffs was Daniel Powter, known for his hit single, "Bad Day." The song became a staple of the American Idol TV show with its upbeat take on when "the whole thing, it turns out wrong."

Passengers in the Falcon "suddenly witnessed another jetboat come around the bend in the river also at a high rate of speed," the complaint continued. "Two vessels violently struck one another bow-to-bow. Metal crunched, glass shattered, the crew was frantic, and the passengers were screaming in terror as these future Plaintiffs were tossed about the vessel."

The suit says the boat operators failed to follow state boating laws that require vessels on rivers stay to the right, or starboard, and operate safely.

Powter and two other passengers who filed the suit suffered serious unspecified injuries and requests at least $5.5 million in damages, plus attorney's fees, according to the suit.

The attorney for the Falcon passengers, Adam Deitz of Anderson Carey, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Jetboat company sues

Last month, Willamette Jetboat filed a suit of its own in federal court, denying responsibility, requesting "exoneration from liability" and citing a federal law called the "Shipowner's Limitation of Liability Act."

Adopted in 1851, the law has been invoked in high-profile, major ocean accidents ranging from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The law allows boat-owners to limit their damages to the value of the vessel after an accident if no negligence is proven.

As one law blog put it, the law "allowed the owners of the Titanic to limit their liability to the value of the Titanic's surviving lifeboats, a mere $92,000 at the time, after the Titanic sank in April of 1912 claiming more than 1,500 lives."

More recently, it's been invoked in attempts to avoid liability in the deaths of 17 people in a duck boat sinking in Missouri and in the deaths of 34 people in the fire and sinking of a dive boat called the Conception in California, both in 2018.

On Sept. 22, Feinstein and Carbajal introduced legislation in Congress to eliminate the law — which Carbajal called "antiquated and unfair" and restore the ability of Conception victims' family members to recoup damages.

Company sued before

The Willamette Jetboat Excursions legal filing asks that total payouts to its passengers be limited to $300,000, which it estimates is the combined value of the boats after the collision.

This appears to be the first time the company has invoked the 170-year-old law. But going to court is not a first.

The company has been sued nine times since 2002. In them, passengers or other boaters allege injuries and negligence, two of them claiming that unsafe practices led to broken backs.

"It wasn't safe the way they were operating at that moment with us, and so I wouldn't be surprised to know that it's happened in the past too," said Haslewood.

She is skeptical of Willamette Jetboat's claim that the company and its employees bear no responsibility for the collision. "Somebody was at fault, and it was one of their drivers," she said.

Haslewood says her daughter's arm has healed. But the 11-year-old has had panic attacks when the family has attempted other boating trips.

"She gets really nervous and starts crying uncontrollably and talks about remembering the accident. And she's not sure she wants to do that anymore," Haslewood said. "It's heartbreaking that she's still dealing with the emotional impact of it."

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