Fifth Circuit reverses EDLa's grant of partial summary judgment in OPA case
On July 23, 2008, the barge DM-932 carrying a cargo of fuel oil, was located in the Mississippi River and was being towed by the tug MEL OLIVER, a towing vessel operated, crewed and chartered by D.R.D. Towing, L.L.C. ("DRD"). The barge, tug and fuel oil were owned by American Commercial Lines, LLC ("ACL"). At the same time, the M/V TINTOMARA, a Liberian flagged vessel owned by Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., Laurin Maritime AB, Whitefin Shipping Co. Limited, and Anglo-Atlantic Steamship Limited (the "Tintomara Interests"), was located nearby in the Mississippi. At approximately 1:30 am, a collision occurred between the Barge DM-932 and the M/V TINTOMARA at or near Mile 98.5. As a result of the collision, the Barge DM-932 sank, and a large quantity of oil was discharged into the Mississippi River. The United States Coast Guard designated ACL as the "responsible party" for the spill pursuant to OPA. While ACL denied liability, it nonetheless coordinated removal and cleanup efforts.
Shortly after the collision and resulting spill, several injured parties filed suits in the Eastern District of Louisiana Court against ACL, DRD, and the Tintomara Interests. ACL, DRD, and the Tintomara Interests then each filed a petition seeking limitation of liability for all claims arising from the spill. ACL filed a claim in the Tintomara Interests' limitation proceeding demanding contribution from the Tintomara Interests under the Oil Pollution Act ("OPA") and alleging that the Tintomara Interests were liable to ACL for losses it incurred as a responsible party under OPA. The Tintomara Interests moved for summary judgment in connection with ACL's OPA claims. The Eastern District of Louisiana Court granted the Tintomara Interests' summary judgment motion, holding that since "at least some fault is attributable" to ACL and/or its purported contractual partner DRD, the Tintomara Interests could not be held liable under OPA, as a matter of law. ACL appealed the Eastern District of Louisiana Court's grant of partial summary judgment to the Fifth Circuit.
The Fifth Circuit reviewed the district court's grant of partial summary judgment de novo. The Fifth Circuit asserted that, in accordance with OPA, each responsible party is liable for removal costs and damages resulting from an oil spill incident. A responsible party may have a complete defense to liability when it can prove that: (i) it had no fault in the oil spill; and (ii) that it was not in a contractual relationship with any party that had any fault in the oil spill. The Tintomara Interests did not allege that ACL had fault in the oil spill, and accordingly, in order to obtain summary judgment, had to prove that ACL was in a contractual relationship with a party that had fault in the oil spill. The Tintomara Interests took the position that ACL was in a contractual relationship with DRD, and that DRD had some fault in causing the collision and oil spill.
The Fifth Circuit rejected the Tintomara Interests' argument, and concluded that the facts were too undeveloped and that material issues of fact remain regarding the contractual relationship between ACL and DRD, and the fault for the spill. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit reversed the Eastern District of Louisiana Court's grant of partial summary judgment in favor of the Tintomara Interests and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
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