A judge’s recent decision on where legal liability lies for a maritime accident which released thousands of gallons of oil into the Mississippi River illustrates the benefits of being proactive in vetting operator quality when chartering vessels. The case involved a July 2008 collision near New Orleans between an oil barge and the vessel TINTOMARA. The collision damaged the ship and resulted in the barge splitting, sinking and spilling 282,000 gallons of oil into the river. The oil barge and her tug were both owned by American Commercial Lines (ACL). However, ACL had bareboat chartered its tug to DRD Towing, who in turn time chartered the tug back to ACL.
The Coast Guard patrols a safety zone around a partially sunken barge. The motor vessel Tintomara and the tugboat Mel Oliver collided in the Mississippi River in New Orleans spilling approximately 419,286 gals.of number six fuel oil.
In Gabarick, et al. v. Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., et al., Case No. 08-04007, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana found that the collision was caused solely by the negligence and statutory violations of the tug, for which DRD was liable. The owners of the TINTOMARA argued that ACL also was at fault because it failed to exercise proper control over DRD, which allegedly had a bad safety record. While the Court suggested that ACL’s liability could be premised on proof that ACL knowingly placed an unsafe vessel into the hands of an unsafe operator and such placement caused the collision, the Court found that the shipowner failed to meet its burden of proof on this issue.
Instead, the Court found that ACL’s vetting of DRD’s licensing, accident history and compliance with the Federal 12-hour watch rule, while imperfect, was nonetheless reasonable. There was evidence that DRD was involved in 17 accidents in the 18 months leading up to the collision and that ACL reviewed the accidents involving its vessels in order to determine the need for corrective action. ACL’s oversight also included a management audit of DRD, as well as quarterly meetings. These actions never revealed evidence that DRD was either using unlicensed operators or working crews in violation of the 12-hour watch rule. However, the Court specifically found evidence that DRD concealed this information from ACL, and held that ACL was not accountable for such concealment. Based on these findings, the Court dismissed the TINTOMARA’s claims against ACL, and ordered DRD to pay ACL all of its stipulated recoverable damages, plus interest and costs.
The case serves as a reminder that screening chartered vessels and their operators for quality and safety, and including and adhering to quality and safety standards in time charters, can reap benefits both in protecting against accidents and defending the charterer from legal liability if accidents occur.