Saturday, April 29, 2016

In the recent issue of
WorkBoat magazine, Tim covered legal
issues that
arose in a boating accident lawsuit that involved a  
speedboat and a passenger ferry. The article, Court Examines
Cell Phone Use in Ferry Accident
, focused attention on the
outcome of a maritime law petition in which one of the parties
attempted to invoke limitation of liability...

A cell phone call on the bridge of a ferry recently became the
focus of a California federal court in examining a 2013 accident
on San Francisco Bay. The ferry, operated by the Golden Gate
Bridge, Highway & Transportation District (Golden Gate), collided
with a speedboat. The owner of the speedboat was seriously
injured and its operator was killed. In the jury trial, claimants’
closing arguments were that the ferry captain was distracted by
a cell phone call and did not see the speedboat.

Readers might remember another high-profile case in which cell
phone use was a significant factor. In July 2010, the tug
Caribbean Sea had been pushing a 250-foot barge when it struck
a small amphibious vehicle operating as a tour vessel on the
Delaware River. The NTSB identified the decision to use the lower
wheelhouse coupled with distraction from a cell phone as
probable causes of the accident. It also identified issues with the
DUKW’s surge tank pressure cap and failure to take actions
appropriate with the risks of anchoring in an active navigation
channel as contributing causes.

Golden Gate filed a petition to limit liability. Limiting liability is
something that frequently arises in maritime accidents. If a
vessel owner’s bid to limit liability is successful, they are only on
the hook for the post-casualty value of the vessel. It could
actually be more complex than that, with freights pending and a
limitation fund based on tonnage possibly being components of
the limitation figure.

In December 2016, the court rendered its decision on Golden
Gate’s petition to limit liability. At a glance, a casual observer
could say that cell phone use is not within the control of a
shipowner. After all, shipowners have control over things like
inspecting engines, requiring lifeboat drills, or ensuring STCW
training. They can’t control a cell phone call on the spur of the
moment, right?

Well, it isn’t quite that simple. Courts tend to look beneath the
surface in limitation proceedings. For instance, in the 2003
Staten Island Ferry accident, the court looked at operating
policies and practices when the City of New York attempted to
limit liability. The court ruled against the City and did not allow it
to limit liability to the $14.4 million post-casualty value of the ferry.

And in this West Coast case, the court didn’t see the situation as
simply a matter of a spontaneous phone call. The court felt that
the ferry operator didn’t meet its legal burden of demonstrating a
lack of privity or knowledge (which if met, would have enabled
limiting liability). The court noted that Golden Gate didn’t have a
policy for the use of cell phones by captains. Additionally, the
court pointed out that it knew its captains carried personal cell
phones while operating ferries and permitted their use.

As a result, the court denied Golden Gate’s attempt to limit
liability. This shows that while facts and issues could seem
straightforward in applying limitation law, courts can examine
things on a deeper level, taking into consideration a vessel
operator’s policies, procedures, and practices.

Ref: Holzhauer v. Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation
District, Case No. 13-cv-02862-JST, U.S. District Court, Northern
District of California

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