Recent Verdict on Bunker Spill Case Brings Clarity to Third-Party Fault and Limitation of Liability Defense
December 18, 2017
Ship & Bunker
Types : Bylined Articles
The case of US v. American Commercial Lines, LLC, No. 16-31150 (5th Cir. Nov. 7, 2017), is the latest chapter in the litigation stemming from the collision between a barge and a tanker on July 28, 2008 which resulted in the barge spilling approximately 300,000 gallons of oil into the Mississippi River near New Orleans. The barge was under tow by the tug MEL OLIVER, which was owned by American Commercial Lines (“ACL”) who had hired another company, DRD Towing Company (“DRD”), to operate it. The tug’s captain was the only member of the crew with a valid Coast Guard license but he was ashore at the time of collision. The conn had been left to an unlicensed apprentice mate or “steersman” who was not authorized to operate the vessel without continuous supervision. At the time of the collision he was found slumped over the steering gear and non- responsive, having worked almost continuously for 36 hours in violation of Coast Guard regulations.
The government prosecuted DRD, the captain and the steersman for criminal violations of federal environmental law. All three pled guilty to certain counts of violating the Ports and Waterways Safety Act and/or the Clean Water Act.
The government also sued ACL and DRD to recover the almost $20 million it had spent responding to the spill. DRD declared bankruptcy. The government moved for summary judgment against ACL as the Responsible Party (“RP”) under OPA, and the district court granted summary judgment and ordered ACL to pay the government in full. ACL then filed this appeal.
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