The Fifth Circuit finds District Court Improperly Applies Various Presumptions and Failed to Allocate Damages in Accordance with Parties Relative Fault in Breakaway Barge Allision Case

In Combo Maritime v. U.S. United Bulk Terminal, LLC., et al., No. 09-30592 (5th Cir., August 23, 2010), the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court's decision involving a barge breakaway and allision on the Mississippi River. The salient facts of the case are as follows: A barge broke free from its moorings in a fleeting facility owned by United and collided with the M/V ALKMAN, which lay at anchor nearby. The owner of the M/V ALKMAN, Combo, brought suit against United, which in turn filed a Third-Party Complaint against Carnival, alleging that the barge breakaway was caused by the negligent navigation of Carnival's cruise ship when it navigated too close to the fleeting facility at full speed.

The District Court dismissed United's claims against Carnival based on the Supreme Court's decision in THE LOUISIANA, 3 Wall. (70 U.S.) 164, 173, 18 L.Ed 85 (1866) which created "the rebuttable presumption that in collisions or allisions involving a drifting vessel, the drifting vessel is at fault." Notwithstanding, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the matter; finding that the "District Court applied the rule in THE LOUISIANA improperly when it (1) applied the presumption between co-defendants; (2) applied the wrong standard of proof for rebutting the presumption; and (3) interpreted the presumption as a presumption of sole liability."

The Court of Appeals explained that there are three (3) ways in which United could have rebutted the presumption established by THE LOUISIANA and defeated liability:

  1. By demonstrating that the allision was the fault of the stationary object; or
  2. By demonstrating that the moving vessel acted with reasonable care; or
  3. By showing that the allision was a result of an Act of God.

The "first route is essentially the contributory negligence route;" the "second route requires the defendant to negate negligence;" and the "third route places the most difficult burden on the defendant." The Appellate Court went on to say that "the district court not only incorrectly applied the drifting vessel presumption between co-defendants, but also applied the Act of God test instead of the reasonableness test for negating negligence."

Furthermore, the District Court determined that the drifting vessel presumption that United had to overcome, trumped the passing vessel presumption that Carnival had to overcome. The Appellate Court found this determination to be erroneous. If the District Court had applied the reasonableness standard and determined that the United barge was not properly moored, "then the presumption would not have operated against Carnival." Instead, the "District Court found that United was unable to rebut the presumption of negligence against it based on an improper Act of God standard." Therefore, there are insufficient findings in the record to determine whether the passing vessel presumption should have been applied against Carnival.

Lastly, pursuant to case law, the drifting vessel presumption is not a presumption of "sole fault on the part of the drifting vessel." Therefore, the Appellate Court found that United is entitled to present evidence of comparative fault at trial and reversed and remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings.

Read the Fifth Circuit's decision

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