Friday, February 22, 2019

In the recent issue of WorkBoat magazine, Tim covered the subject
accident and injury cases, issues that typically arise include
whether the person was a Jones Act Seaman for subject matter
jurisdiction purposes of qualifying as a plaintiff, and whether the
craft served upon was a vessel for the purposes of maritime law.
However, in this Fifth Circuit case involving a vessel towing an
underwater device used in the energy and oil exploration industry,
the simple "vessel" test was not adequate because additional
attributes under federal law related to carrying out towing functions
opened the door to regulatory requirements for the captain.

What is a Towing Vessel?

What is a towing vessel? On its face, the question seems
straightforward enough. A powerful ocean-going tug lugging a fuel
barge up the East Coast is clearly a towing vessel. And a towboat
on an inland river with a cluster of coal barges also fits the bill. But
as vessels handle new roles in the offshore energy industry, the
definition of towing vessel can go beyond traditional ones we
readily recognize. This was illustrated by a recent legal decision
from the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Fifth Circuit.

The matter arose in the Gulf of Mexico and involved something
known as a towfish, which is an underwater sonar device. The one
here was about seven and a half feet long and shaped like a
torpedo. It was deployed by Tesla Offshore to conduct a high-
resolution survey of the Outer Continental Shelf. Tesla chartered a
vessel from International Offshore for the tow. While reeled out with
about 14,000 feet of cable, the towfish struck one of the mooring
lines of a mobile offshore drill rig operated by Shell Offshore. This
resulted in the line losing tension and a suspension of drilling

Shell Offshore sued for damages. The jury ruled in favor of Shell,
awarding it more than $9 million. The court’s decision placed 75%
of the blame on Tesla and 25% on International. International
challenged the court’s finding that its vessel was a towing vessel
under 46 U.S.C. § 2101. The U.S. Code defines a “towing vessel”
as “a commercial vessel engaged in or intending to engage in the
service of pulling, pushing, or hauling alongside, or any
combination of pulling, pushing, or hauling alongside.”

Why was this “towing vessel” issue so important? Under federal
rules applied by the court here, the master of a towing vessel of 26
feet or more in length is required to hold a towing license. The
captain of the vessel pulling the towfish did not hold the relevant
towing credential. International Offshore argued that its vessel was
not a towing vessel as a matter of law. It didn’t dispute the court’s
analysis under a plain reading of the statute. However, it felt that the
statute could produce absurd results if applied literally.

On appeal, the higher court upheld the lower court’s decision that
International’s vessel was a towing vessel. As such, it was subject
to the federal rules mentioned above. This shows that although
maritime law deals with terms that seem simple on their face, such
as “seaman” or “vessel,” multimillion-dollar lawsuits can be fought
over how such terms are interpreted.

Ref:  Shell Offshore, Inc. v. Tesla Offshore, Inc. v. International
Offshore Services, No. 16-30528, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth

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