Friday, August 26, 2016

In the recent issue of
WorkBoat magazine, Tim covered legal
issues that arose in a complex maritime accident on navigable
waters involving tugs and tows. The dominant mind doctrine, a
maritime law concept that courts use to determine comparative
liability in multi-vessel collisions and accidents, was applied by
the federal district court here in making a ruling on the outcome
of a motion.

A River Incident and The Dominant Mind Doctrine - Part II, Tim
continued with the court's review of issues arising from an
accident that resulted in serious property damages. This is the
second part of a discussion about an accident that occurred on
the Illinois River. Part I discussed how a towing vessel and two
Army Corps of Engineers tugs agreed to assist another towing
vessel in transiting past Marseilles Dam.

The effort didn’t end well, resulting in claims against the owner of
the well meaning vessel that rendered assistance. The United
States filed claims for damages to the dam and related
structures. It based its claims on violations of the Rivers and
Harbors Act, negligence and unseaworthiness under general
maritime law, and creation of a public nuisance. A school district
also joined the action, making claims based on negligence and
unseaworthiness under general maritime law.

The owner of the well meaning vessel filed a motion for the court
to rule in its favor on the claims it faced. The owners of the well
meaning vessel argued that their vessel fulfilled its duties as an
assist boat and should be exonerated from liability, or in other
words, be off the hook legally. They argued that when damages
involve a tow or entire flotilla, courts employ the dominant mind
doctrine to place liability on the tug and absolve the tow from
liability. In instances where multiple tugs are involved, courts
examine “whose people are actually in control of the operation”
to determine dominant mind status. They cited N.M. Paterson &
Sons, Ltd. v. M/V Ethel E. 2004 WL 170326 N.D. Ill. 2004, a case
where the parties were in dispute as to who was ultimately
responsible for the maneuvering of a bulk carrier.

When a helper tug merely furnishes power in obedience to
orders from the primary tug without any negligence on its part, it
should be exonerated from all liability for damages to the tow.
However, the assist vessel must be free of negligence to be
absolved from liability. This is set forth in another relevant case,
Complaint of Patton-Tully Transp. Co., No. CIV. A. 79-2315, 1982
WL 195694 (E.D. La. 1982).

The United States, the school district, and the owner of the other
towing vessel argue that the dominant mind doctrine cannot help
the assisting vessel here because it did more than simply give
passive assistance. Its actions included joining the troubled
vessel at Ballards Island, connecting the two tows, overseeing
tree-wiring and other rigging operations, speaking with the
management of the two companies, offering suggestions to the
captain, configuring assist boats for transit, and instructing
assist boats during transit.

The court ruled against the owners of the assistance rendering
vessel as to the negligence, public nuisance, and Rivers and
Harbors Act claims, but in their favor as to the unseaworthiness
claims. The decision shows that in multi-vessel mishaps, courts
can examine things closely to determine if a particular vessel’s
actions effectively placed it in control of a given situation more so
than the other vessels.

Ref: In the Matter of the Complaint of Ingram Barge Co., et al,
Consolidated with In the Matter of American Commercial Lines,
et al, for Exoneration From or Limitation of Liability.
Civil Action
No. 13 C 3453 & 13 C 4292 U.S. District Court, N.D. of Illinois

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