Oil Spill on the Mississippi River

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. 

 

(AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard – Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas M. Blue)

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.

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.

Screening Critical
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.

Photo via ABC News

When the Costa Concordia ran aground on a reef off Giglio Island near the Tuscan coast of Italy last month, owners and insurers of vessels certainly paid attention.  How could they not?  The incident was the most noteworthy shipping casualty since the Exxon Valdez disaster, and it is now being called the biggest ever shipping loss for insurers.

While the investigation into the causes of the incident is ongoing, early indications are that it could have been avoided.  And even if it was unavoidable, the management of the ensuing emergency by the captain and the crew of the Costa Concordia apparently left a lot to be desired.  The fallout has been immense, and a magnifying glass has been placed over many issues relating to proper navigational practices and emergency management.  Environmental concerns have arisen amid reports of spilling oil and fuel  from the Costa Concordia’s hull.  And, now, the ship’s owner is faced with determining whether it should salvage, cut or sink it, a decision that should have major financial, logistical, and environmental risks and ramifications.

In short, the current and potential issues associated with the incident are limitless.  Thus, marine companies should view the matter as motivation to shore up their own policies and procedures.  As suggested by Kevin Gilheany of Maritime Compliance International, marine companies should take this opportunity to review their own navigation standards, as navigational error by the captain of the Costa Concordia is widely regarded as the main cause of the entire incident.  It also would be beneficial to use this incident to refresh both captain and crew with those navigation standards and to drive home the need to be vigilant at all times.  Marine companies also should ensure that their crew knows their emergency and evacuation protocol.  Moreover, if passenger vessels are in their fleet, they should ensure captain and crew understand that, in emergency evacuation scenarios, there is a responsibility on their part to evacuate the passengers first.  By taking such steps, vessel operators will improve their chances of avoiding a casualty of their own and certainly be in a better position to handle such a casualty in the event that one occurs.