Boat Work May Give Rise to a Maritime or State Law Lien
Under Maritime law, when one provides services or products to a boat, these are considered "necessaries." If one provides necessaries to a boat with authorization, then there arises as a matter of law a maritime lien that goes with the vessel, and will allow the provider to arrest (seize by federal Marshal) the boat to satisfy the lien. In Maryland, one also obtains a state law mechanics' lien. The state law lien allows the provider to hold the vessel until payment is made or until the owner files suit for "replevin."
Possession is good for something
In Maryland, the mechanics lien is good only so long as the provider has possession, so an engine repair that took place at the owner's slip is probably not going to work. If the boat is on blocks and has not been relaunched, however, the lien is probably still good. A maritime lien, to the contrary, goes with the boat where it goes in the world -- and its a "hidden" lien in the sense that one not do anything to assure that it is still good. Since the remedies are different in different circumstances (retaining possession versus arrest), one must be very careful in terms of the remedies one pursues.
The Bill is Bogus!
If you provided the services, counter-accusations are likely to follow any disputed bill. For this reason it is VERY important to keep reasonable documentation of what was done, what was requested, what changes were made and what payments have been received. I strongly recommend email to all of my clients that can control their tempers in writing -- a clear trail about what happened and who said what is a huge benefit. I also recommend capturing the basics of telephone and live conversations in emails. Send them to yourself shortly after the conversations occurred -- then you will know what happened. If you are boat owner and you get an inflated bill ... take a deep breath, find the owner, speak reasonably and ask for the time records. If there is not supporting documentation for the work, then there may be a problem. But yelling will not help. If need be, obtain a surveyor to verify whether the work was properly performed.
The End Game
Where to start collections depends on the circumstances. If the boat is documented with the Coast Guard, filing a Notice of Lien Claim may be a good first step -- but do not let the statute of limitations expire while you wait for payment. If the boat is in your possession, prepare a Notice of Lien under state law (the Maryland DNR can help you with this). If it is not in your possession and it is not federally documented, you will most likely need to go after the individual owner, as opposed to looking for the boat. Maryland's District Court system provides for small claims without attorneys and medium claims up to $30,000. It can be very effective way to obtain a judgment.
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