Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Finds OPA Ninety (90) Day Presentment Period Mandatory

In Nguyen v. American Commercial Lines, L.L.C., the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part a judgment by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denying American Commercial Lines’ (ACL) motion for summary judgment relating to claims made under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) by various fishermen and other parties.

A barge owned by ACL was designated by the United States Coast Guard as having been the source of an oil discharge after a collision with another vessel.  ACL was named the responsible party for any claims filed under OPA for damages arising from the spill. The Fifth Circuit was presented with two (2) issues to consider in this case: (1) whether the fishermen presented enough information to ACL to comply with OPA’s claim submission requirement, and (2) whether or not the fishermen had to comply with both the requirement to give the responsible party at least ninety (90) days to respond to a claim before filing a lawsuit and the bar from filing a lawsuit more than three (3) years after the oil discharge occurred.

On the issue of whether sufficient information was attached to the claim, the Fifth Circuit found for the fisherman, holding that they had submitted enough information with their claim letters to ACL to begin the ninety (90) day settlement clock. Most of the fishermen submitted applicable fishing licenses, selected dock receipts for seafood sold to wholesalers, and included federal tax returns.  ACL responded with a laundry list of additional documents it required to process their claims, which the fishermen declined to send.  ACL claimed it had the right to demand these documents because the separate OPA requirements for filing a claim for damages to a federally established fund could ask for such information, however, the Fifth Circuit said that these did not apply to claims against the responsible party. OPA’s only requirement is that the fishermen file a claim to the responsible party, and thus the claim and information provided was sufficient for ACL to decide whether or not to settle the case.

The Fifth Circuit then moved to the issue of the two (2) time restrictions imposed by the OPA. On this issue, the Court found for ACL, stating that a second group of fishermen who filed their claims within ninety (90) days of the end of the three (3) year period were barred from filing a lawsuit a few days after sending their claims to ACL. The Court said that the two (2) requirements work independently of one another, meaning that the fishermen were not able to use following one requirement to excuse not following the other. The fishermen tried to argue that the “spirit” of the law would be violated if they were not allowed to file their lawsuit for damages and since ACL had not responded to the previous fishermen, they assumed they would not respond to their claims either.  However, the Court said that they could not enforce the spirit of the law outside of the explicit rules in the law itself and an assumption that the claim would be denied by ACL was not enough to say that they had complied with the ninety (90) day requirement in OPA.  Accordingly, if a claimant does not submit a claim at least ninety (90) days before the expiration of the three (3) year statute of limitation period, then the claim is barred.

To read a copy of the Fifth Circuit’s decision, click here.

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