Monday, July 25, 2016

In the recent issue of
WorkBoat magazine, Tim covers admiralty
and maritime law issues involving liability when multiple vessels
are involved in a maritime accident on navigable waters. A
maritime law concept known as the dominant mind doctrine can
govern the issue of assigning fault to the respective operators of
various vessels based on the level of control over a given

A River Incident and The Dominant Mind Doctrine - Part I,
issues determining liability in a maritime accident, whether
involving property damage, bodily injury, or other form of
economic and non-economic losses and damages are

A recent incident on the Illinois River focused attention on the
dominant mind doctrine, an important maritime law concept that
arises in situations involving tugs, barges, and flotillas. Court
decisions sometimes reference the doctrine in multi-vessel
situations, where it can be difficult to put a finger on exactly who
was ultimately responsible for a mishap. The doctrine essentially
says that the vessel which is liable is the one whose people are
in control of a given operation.

In the Illinois River case at hand, a towing vessel attempted to
navigate past the Marseilles Dam and into the Marseilles Canal.
Another towing vessel, together with two U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers tugs, agreed to assist this vessel and its tow.
Unfortunately, the tow broke apart somewhere around Mile 247,
with seven barges either hitting the dam or sinking upstream of it.

In the aftermath of the incident, the owner of the well meaning
towing vessel filed a complaint in admiralty for exoneration from
or limitation of liability. In general, vessel owners may file for
limitation of liability in anticipation of lawsuits that follow a
sinking, collision, or other casualty. In plain English, the tactic
means a vessel owner attempts to be off the hook legally, or at
least be on the hook for no more than the post-accident value of
its vessel plus freights pending. We’ve seen limitation of liability
arise in a number of high-profile cases, including the Titanic,
Andrew Barberi (
the Staten Island Ferry involved in a 2003
accident), and most recently, the sinking of El Faro in October

In the wake of the Illinois River accident, there were lawsuits for
property damages. While it’s easy enough for lawyers and
investigators to scrutinize logbooks with 20/20 hindsight from the
comfort and safety of an office, it seems this situation was a
brutish white knuckle ordeal at the time it unfolded. In reviewing
the radio transmissions, one sees great resourcefulness and
courage in trying to keep a dire situation from turning hopeless.
One particular radio transmission might serve to express the
anguish of the situation, “We may need some help down here...
We got about 12,000 horse here, we’re barely holding 20--29
barges...  the situation is getting worse. They’re opening up more
and more dam all the time. ”

Between the time the two vessels first communicated with each
other and the tow ultimately broke apart, a number of measures
were taken by the well meaning towing vessel. When the
situation took a turn for the worse and barges hit the dam and
sank, one is left to wonder how a court would see this legal
mess. Would it give the benefit of the doubt to the well meaning
vessel that came in to assist the first vessel? The answer lies in
the application of the dominant mind doctrine, mentioned above.

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