Maritime Knowledge Contributes to Success for ClientPosted on Monday, September 11th, 2017 | Posted in Resources & Publications, Site Blog
“Decision paves the way for vessel interests to seek compensation for damages sustained during mooring operations…”
NEW ORLEANS, LA – In a recent decision, the operator of a Port of New Orleans wharf was found solely liable for failing to provide a safe berth and for failure to disclose hidden deficiencies of its wharf to a bulk carrier. The ruling is important for vessel interests facing maritime torts because the ruling addresses that vessel owners can avoid liability by demonstrating that they have taken practical steps to avoid a collision incident and have applied all safety standards.
The plaintiff in the case, Dixie Marine, Inc. v. Q JAKE M/V, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133965, sued the defendant-vessel in rem, claiming it negligently damaged the wharf as a result of the defendant attempting to dock. The litigation arose out of a mooring incident at the Andry Street Wharf in New Orleans on January 26, 2016.
According to the complaint, the plaintiff alleged that on January 26th it suffered structural damage to the entire wharf as a result of the defendant vessel. The vessel responded with a counterclaim stating negligence against the operator of the wharf.
The defendant vessel was awarded the full amount of the damages they incurred because of the wharfinger’s substandard conduct. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana held that:
- the vessel was not liable to the wharfinger, and
- the wharfinger was liable to the vessel, owing damages for additional pilot fees, tugboat expenses, replacement mooring lines and surveyor fees, incurred because of the vessel’s unsuccessful mooring attempts at the deteriorated wharf.
Main takeaways from the court’s opinion
This decision paves the way for vessel interests to seek compensation for damages sustained during mooring operations and caused by the wharfinger’s negligent failure to disclose defects of the wharf. In a well-thought written opinion following a two-day bench trial, Judge Carl C. Barbier found “the vessel’s experts more credible and their conclusions more persuasive.” The court held that the vessel “was equipped with and properly utilized sufficient mooring equipment for a vessel during high river conditions,” as well as that “[t]here was no evidence of the crew mishandling or improperly securing the lines.” Importantly, the court emphasized that “consideration of the capabilities of the [mooring] tugs and not just the number of them is paramount in forming an opinion” on whether a vessel’s mooring attempt complied with industry standards. According to Judge Barbier, the wharfinger’s negligence was “the sole and proximate cause of the damage to the wharf.”
The Louisiana and Oregon Rules
These rules impose presumptions of fault against a moving vessel when it joins with a stationary object. This did not apply to this particular incident for two reasons:
a) the vessel was constantly under its own power and was not a drifting vessel, and
b) the vessel never made contact with the wharf.
Therefore, the court concluded that the incident did not constitute an “allision,” but a “mooring incident,” to which the Louisiana and Oregon presumptions did not apply.
The Pennsylvania Rule
This rule comes into play when a vessel involved in collision violates a safety standard established by a statute or regulation; the vessel must show that its fault could not have been the cause of the incident. In this case, the Pennsylvania presumption did not apply because
a) the mooring incident did not constitute an “allision,” and
b) the keeper of the wharf failed to establish a safety violation based on crew fatigue or insufficient mooring equipment of the vessel
Excluding the above rules, the court applied traditional principles of negligence to decide the case. First, the vessel did not breach its duty to approach the wharf with reasonable skill and care and to avoid causing damage to it. Second, the vessel’s mooring operations were consistent with local custom and prudent seamanship. Third, the condition of the wharf and not the number of tugs is what caused damage to the wharf. Finally, the wharfinger breached its duty to furnish a safe berth and warn the vessel of hidden hazards that were known or should have been known to the wharfinger.
For more information about this Alert please contact:
Daniel A. Tadros
Admiralty and Maritime Practice Area Coordinator
Chaffe McCall is proud of results obtained for our clients, however past results do not guarantee future results. The material provided herein is for informational use only and is not intended to be legal advice.
Daniel A. Tadros