Storm Damaged Boats
Liability Risks for Failure to Report Inadequate Repairs
by David H. Pascoe, Marine Surveyor
Since Hurricane Andrew in 1992,
the eastern U.S. has been hit with 7 hurricanes that have caused damage to
tens, if not hundreds of thousands of boats. This means that there is
nearly an equal number of boats that have been repaired and put back on
the market. In itself, that would not be a problem, except that so many of
these damaged boats were sold as salvage to speculators who then made
substandard repairs and put them back on the market.
What prompted me to write this article is that increasingly
I am hearing of complaints against surveyors who have failed
to discover major damages and structural faults with storm damaged
boats. These cases have involved such serious instances as:
(from front page)
- Bottoms splitting open
- Hull sides delaminating
- Stringers and bulkheads broken loose
- Failed hull/deck joints
- Water saturation of hull & deck cores
- Fires caused by corrosion in electrical apparatus and systems
- Machinery failures due to inadequate repairs
Fortunately, storm damaged boats are fairly easy to discover. All he
has to do is to be particularly alert, and approach every survey that he
performs with this possibility in mind. There are a lot of these boats out
Many of these boats were totaled out by the insurance company and sold
as salvage. Many were bought up in large numbers by salvage speculators
who are in the business of restoring and reselling. Very large numbers
were repaired under insurance claims. Some were simply purchased by
individuals looking for a bargain or a project where repairs were
ultimately made by an amateur. In any case, the repairs were just as
likely to have been poorly accomplished as not. This is not to suggest
that all storm damaged and repaired boats have faulty repairs. I
personally know of many speculators who performed quality repairs. On the
other hand, I know of some who are so unscrupulous that they attempted to
cover up damages rather than make repairs. There are a lot of these out
is rather easy to spot because it is so difficult to restore damaged
hull surfaces to their original contours. Only the most highly skilled
repairers are capable of making a hull repair, say on the hull sides, so
well that some evidence of the repair is not visible. This is especially
true on boats where the gelcoat finishes were repaired. Precisely matching
gelcoat color is nearly impossible so that, after just a few years,
discoloration or mismatched colors of the repaired area are usually a dead
Another potential indicator is a hull that has been painted, particularly
a late model boat where there is no apparent reason for the painting.
Always suspect boats that have been repainted and investigate carefully.
Painting a hull yields a much higher gloss than gelcoat, and this higher
gloss will reveal the imperfections of a repair more readily than gelcoat.
Sighting a hull is an important part of the survey. To sight it properly
one needs good lighting conditions. If a boat is hauled out inside a
covered building, there's a good chance that the lack of light will
inhibit the surveyor's ability to detect repaired areas.
To sight the hull, one needs to utilize reflected light off the hull sides
to show up imperfections. This is done by moving around the hull in such a
way that you observe the bottom and sides by this reflected light method.
It involves sighting down the surface of the hull at an angle nearly
parallel to the surface, so that a fairly large area is showing a
reflection. And it is this reflected light that best shows up
irregularities in the surface such as grinder marks or poor fairing.
The bottom, particularly painted bottoms, are most difficult. But then the
bottom is where the repairer usually does the poorest work because it is
hard to reach. On the other hand, the surveyor rarely has good lighting
conditions on the bottom so that it is here that he needs to be extra
careful. Make sure that the boat gets lifted up high enough that you've
got good light and unobstructed visibility. Be especially alert for
grinder marks and poorly faired surfaces.
Once repaired areas are discovered, sounding the hull sides out will
give an indication of whether repairs were properly made. I do not
recommend using a plastic hammer to do this as plastic against plastic
does not give the best audible result. Using a large coin or medallion is
much better at detecting subtle changes in the density of the material. It
can often show up soft fillers where the plastic hammer won't.
Examination from the interior, if there is any access at all, will
often tell the whole story. Often the repairs are made without repainting
on the interior and the method of repair will be apparent. Or it may be
repainted, but the paint is so fresh that the repair still shows up, as
fresh paint on the inside of an older boat is a dead giveaway. Also look
for fiberglass dust and other debris that may not have been removed.
If the repair looks sloppy, I then go back over the exterior with my coin,
sounding out the entire hull surface area looking for delamination or
large areas that were filled with putty. What I'm most concerned with are
areas where the reinforced plastic was not returned to its original
structural strength. Many times a shoddy repair will not restore damaged
laminate, but merely cover it up with fairing, thus leaving a very weak
area that is likely to fail at a later time. This is precisely what I most
want to avoid.
One problem with this is that some of the highest quality fillers are very
hard and may not show up any audible change in sound. Fortunately, someone
who short cuts repairs is not likely to use this very expensive material,
but rather cheaper materials like Bondo or other auto body materials which
are soft enough that they do show up. If they use the hard stuff, I'm
stuck because I can't tell. In that case, the best I can do is write it up
in as much detail as possible and then declaim responsibility for
determining the effectiveness of the repair.
Decks & Superstructure
Examine the decks and superstructure with the same degree of care as
the hull. For if substandard repairs are likely to appear anywhere, it is
here. Use the same sighting techniques as for the hull, being alert for
grinder marks and general unfairness.
The hull to deck joint is another area where short cut repairs are most
likely. Examine the sheer line carefully, looking for evidence of filling
and unfairness. If at all possible, try to inspect the deck joint from the
interior. Stress cracks and numerous loose screws in the rails may
indicate that the area is weak. Or there may be a condition where many of
the deck fasteners are all broken loose as a result of the vessel hitting
against pilings. Signs of excessive leaking on the interior may foretell
It is extremely difficult for a repairer to cover up all evidence of a
boat having sunk. There are now so many sunk hurricane boats in existence
that my philosophy has become "guilty until proven innocent." It takes me
about 15 minutes of careful examination to determine whether a boat has
been sunk or not. Here's a short list of the best indicators:
- Corrosion in, on or behind electrical panels, terminal blocks and
other electrical components where there is no other explanation for the
existence of corrosion except sinking.
- Interior hardware: look for rusty steel hinges, lighting
fixtures, screws inside cabinets, drawer slides and other corroded
hardware that was not replaced.
- Water stains on bulkheads, partitions. Examination of raw wood
behind interior structures will usually leave clear evidence of a boat
that has sunk. Often times the water lines are clearly apparent. They
are usually to be found in areas that are hard to reach.
- An older boat with too many new replacements. How else does one
explain an older boat where everything is new?
- Older boat is too clean and has virtually nothing personal on it.
When there are no signs of anyone having owned the boat, one has to
While it is not the surveyor's responsibility to research the past
history of the vessel, he does need to do something to protect himself.
Many times a survey will reveal suspicions of sinking or other serious
damage that may be hard to prove. Making such an allegation without being
able to prove it could cost the surveyor dearly. So could finding obscure
evidence but not reporting it. So what to do?
The only solution for this dilemma that I know of is to do an extra good
job of surveying the boat. I've run across more boats that have had good
repairs than bad. I've had cases where there were indications of the boat
having been sunk, but not incontrovertible evidence, just hints. The only
thing I can do is to look extra close. If there is no clear evidence and
everything performs up to standard, then the best I can do is to advise
the customer of the possibility, of my suspicions, and to state that I
can't prove it.
If I can point to specific evidence, then I feel that I have to write that
up in my report, but only after photographing it and documenting my file
thoroughly. I adopt the attitude that whatever I say, I have to be able to
successfully defend my words in court. If I wouldn't be comfortable saying
it on a witness stand, then I don't say it. But whatever I do say, I make
sure that its totally accurate and verifiable.
Properly Repaired Boats
Every year I run across at least a half-dozen boats on which I detect
storm damage. Most of these are properly repaired. Whether or not a
surveyor has an obligation to report these facts, or suspicions, to the
buyer is a tough question to answer. When it comes to late model and very
expensive boats, I find it very rare that repairs were not properly made.
Usually they were so well done that only an expert could detect them. If I
am totally confident that the repairs were first rate, more often than not
I do not inform the customer. My reasoning is that to inform him of prior
damage is often very stigmatizing and could kill the sale for no valid
reason. Properly repaired damage is not a defect, and does not affect the
value of the vessel, except possibly in the mind of a non expert.
The difficulty with reporting properly completed repairs in the report is
that it is likely to draw the suspicion of the lender and the insurer.
They may reject the vessel or loan based only on your comments that they
wrongly interpret. Or, they may come back and ask you to state that the
repairs were properly made. Now you're in a box because you don't know how
the repairs were made; you're only evaluating based on what you can see.
And you can't see inside the laminate. So to make that statement in
writing is to start sawing the branch that your perched upon.
The degree of severity of prior damage is the main criteria that I use for
making my decision. That, and whether the repairs are detectable by anyone
other than myself. If, for example, a 52' Hatteras had a substantial hole
in the hull side, or major hull/deck joint repair work done, then I'd
probably feel obligated to inform the customer, to protect myself and him.
If the hull sides had just been banged and scratched up, then probably
not. I draw the line between minor, moderate or major repairs. If the
repairs are readily detectable, then I feel that I have to tell him.
Chances are that he will eventually find out anyway, and he may be very
unhappy that I didn't tell him.
Great works of art such as very old paintings have been repaired and
restored so many times that of the original painting, there's not much
left. That does not reduce their value. Houses and buildings have major
roof damage and repairs all the time. Cars and other vehicles are also
routinely repaired without the requirement for disclosure. The legal
requirement for disclosure is based on the propriety of the repairs. A
person can be held liable for knowingly selling defective merchandise.
The surveyor is held to essentially the same standard. Probably the best
way to answer this question is to determine whether there is any
possibility that the condition could result in an economic loss to the
client. If it could, then the condition must be disclosed.
First posted 6/01/97 at David Pascoe's site
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