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The Golden Ray: The Wreckage is Gone, but Her Wake Remains Roiled

April 1, 2022


The legal voyage of the vehicle carrier Golden Ray has not ended. While she capsized off the Georgia coast on September 8, 2019, was declared a constructive total loss in October 2019, and was removed in October 2021, the legal consequences continue. On March 25, 2022, Glynn county, Georgia in whose waters the vessel ended her days, filed suit against her owners, the managers, the local agent, and the salvor in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, case number CV222-028.

The County seeks recovery for “damages” as defined in OPA 90. These include damage to real and personal property, natural resource damages, loss of revenue such as taxes, royalties, and rents, loss of subsistence living, and the increased cost of public services.

The complaint raises a plethora of knotty legal issues under OPA 90. Many of these, while legal questions addressing the interpretation of the statute and having the potential for considerable financial impact, require a detailed review of Congressional intent–a murky area under this statute at best.

However, the complaint does present two questions of considerable practical import. First is whether the County is entitled to the jury trial as it has demanded, and second if the salvor is entitled to responder immunity as provided in OPA 90 itself and under evolving principles of judge made law, will the remaining defendants, i.e. the OPA designated responsible party, be burdened with bearing the salvor’s share of any liability?

Jury trial. The Count’s demand for a jury trial is apparent.  The trial will take place in Glynn County with the jury pool will be made up of local residents who may well have been affected by the casualty, and therefore may be sympathetic to the plaintiff’s case. The answer to the question whether the County is entitled to a jury trial lies in the jurisdictional basis for the suit. Federal court practice requires the plaintiff to state in the complaint the basis for the court’s jurisdiction. Admiralty, federal question, and diversity of citizenship form the bases for jurisdiction in the federal courts. If a matter falls within the court’s admiralty jurisdiction, the parties have no right to a jury trial. Notwithstanding that the operative facts of the case took place on navigable waters, thereby invoking the court’s admiralty jurisdiction, the County has claimed that that OPA 90 as federal statute establishes federal question jurisdiction, thus preserving the right to a jury trial. Note that the facts, and not the parties, dictate the jurisdictional basis for the case.  We expect that at some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, the defendants will move to strike the demand for a jury trial. The result of that application should produce a guidepost under OPA 90 on this issue.

Responder Immunity for the Salvor. If the salvor is granted immunity, the financial burden on the remaining defendants held liable can be substantial as they may be obligated to pick up the salvor’s share of liability. The salvor, of course, had no hand in the original casualty, but is being sued for allegedly causing further pollution in the course of its post-accident operations. The salvor will presumably enjoy the shield of OPA’s responder immunity section protecting the salvor in the absence of its own gross negligence. Also, to the extent that the salvor followed the Coast Guard’s orders, it will be able to claim immunity under the doctrine of “derivative immunity.”

The question, then, is whether the remaining defendants who have been held liable including the shipowner/OPA responsible party must pick up the share of liability adjudged against the salvor. To the extent that multiple defendants are held jointly and severally liable–that is each can be held for the whole of the judgement plaintiff recovers–the answer is “yes” absent the intervention of other procedural events prior to trial and judgment, such as a settlement with less than all the defendants where the effect of a joint and several judgment is taken into account.

We consider this suit an important case in the evolving interpretation of OPA deserving of continuing attention.