U.S. Coast Guard Investigations: Admissible or Not in Litigation?

August 19, 2015

A U.S. District Court considered whether photographs taken as part of a U.S. Coast Guard investigation were admissible.

Under 46 U.S.C. § 6308(a), no part of a U.S. Coast Guard Marine Casualty Investigation Report, including findings of fact, opinions, recommendations, deliberations or conclusions, is admissible as evidence or subject to discovery in any civil or administrative proceedings. The statute is clear and it is generally accepted that the Coast Guard’s actual investigative report is protected from discovery and inadmissible as evidence in litigation. See, e.g.,Guest v. Carnival Corp., 917 F.Supp.2d 1242, 1245 (S.D. Fla. 2012).

However, what happens when the Coast Guard investigates an incident but no Marine Casualty Investigation Report (“MCIR”) is created?  Are documents generated by the Coast Guard as part of its preliminary investigation admissible at trial or not?  This is precisely the situation the District Court faced in Newill v. Campbell Transp. Co., Inc., No. 12-cv-1344, 2015 WL 222438 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 14, 2015).

In Newill, the Coast Guard launched a preliminary investigation into plaintiff Newill’s fall following defendant’s report of the incident to the Coast Guard. At some point, nine photographs of the accident scene were taken, although the Marine Casualty Investigator had no recollection as to who took the photos or when they were taken. The Coast Guard’s preliminary investigation determined that the fall was not a serious marine accident or a major marine casualty, so the investigation ended at the preliminary level. The Coast Guard did not generate a MCIR. Plaintiff later obtained the photographs from the Coast Guard via a Freedom of Information Act request. Defendant filed a motion to preclude admission of the photographs at trial, and plaintiff filed a cross-motion to establish their admissibility.

The Newill Court immediately recognized that there was almost no case law directly on point inasmuch as the existing cases involved situations where an actual report existed. However, it found persuasive the cases taking a narrower interpretation of Section 6308(a). First, it found that Section 6308(a) extends only to reports of an investigation conducted under Section 6301. Here, the Coast Guard’s investigation never passed the preliminary level and no report was made. It was, therefore, “as though the photographs were just like any other document in the possession of the Coast Guard,” which may or may not be admissible at trial under the rules of evidence. Second, the District Court found that even if Section 6308(a) does cover preliminary investigations, the photographs were not the type of materials the statute was designed to cover. They did not fix any type of liability, but merely illustrated the condition of the objects depicted.

Although recognizing this as a “close call,” the District Court held that Section 6308(a) was not a bar to the admissibility of the photographs.

In short, although Section 6308(a) appears to be a total bar to the admissibility of Coast Guard investigations, in certain circumstances, there may be exceptions to the statute.