Liability for Damage Caused by Breakaway Vessels During the Recent Storms

Oct 27, 2017 By David R. Maass, Alley, Maass, Rogers & Lindsay, P.A.

After a storm, an owner sometimes returns to discover his vessel has taken on a life of its own, crashing into other vessels, docks, and seawalls. What happens when a vessel breaks loose from her moorings and causes damage to her berth or another vessel? Under what circumstances will the breakaway vessel be held liable?

In maritime law, liability for damage caused by an allision (when a moving vessel strikes a stationary object) depends on fault. American courts have developed a set of judicial presumptions that apportion fault in collision and allision cases. One of these presumptions is the Louisiana Rule—named for the U.S. Supreme Court case, The Louisiana, 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 164 (1865), that established the rule—which holds that a drifting vessel that allies with a stationary object is presumed to be at fault for any damage it caused.

The Louisiana Rule “derives from the common-sense observation that moving vessels do not usually collide with stationary objects unless the moving vessel is mishandled in some way.” Bunge Corp. v. Freeport Marine Repair, Inc., 240 F.3d 919, 923 (11th Cir. 2001). Thus, the Louisiana Rule is analogous to the general tort doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”), which holds that, when an object causes damage that could only have occurred through negligence, the person responsible for the object must have been negligent.

When a court finds that a vessel broke free from her moorings and allied with a stationary object, the breakaway vessel is presumably at fault and the vessel’s owner is presumably liable. An owner can rebut that presumption by showing one of three things: that the stationary object was at fault, that the owner used reasonable care, or that the allision was an inevitable accident. See Fischer v. S/Y NERAIDA, 508 F.3d 586, 593–94 (11th Cir. 2007).

First, an owner can rebut the presumption by showing that the stationary object was at fault. If the breakaway vessel allied with another vessel, the owner could show, for example, that the other vessel was moored in a dangerous location. If the breakaway vessel damaged her berth, the owner could show that the berth was not maintained in a safe condition. This rebuttal resembles the tort defense of contributory negligence, when a defendant turns the tables to show why the plaintiff was really the cause of his injury. See id. at 593.

The second way an owner can rebut the presumption is by showing that he used reasonable care to secure the vessel before the storm. “Applied to the context of hurricane preparations, reasonable care amounts to whether the owner ‘use[d] all reasonable means and took proper action to guard against, prevent or mitigate the dangers posed by the hurricane.’” Id. at 594 (alteration in original) (quoting Stuart Cay Marina v. M/V SPECIAL DELIVERY, 510 F. Supp. 2d 1063, 1072 (S.D. Fla. 2007)). Whether the owner’s actions met the legal standard of reasonable care depends on a number of facts and circumstances and in many cases, requires evidence of industry practices.

Finally, the owner can rebut the presumption by showing that the allision was an inevitable accident. An owner asserting the defense of inevitable accident bears a heavy burden, for he must show that he took every reasonable precaution. See Boudoin v. J. Ray McDermott & Co., 281 F.2d 81, 88 (5th Cir. 1960). It is not enough to show that the cause of the allision, such as a hurricane, was beyond the owner’s control. “An accident is said to be ‘inevitable’ not merely when caused by vis major or an Act of God but also when all precautions reasonably to be required have been taken, and the accident has occurred notwithstanding.” GRANT GILMORE & CHARLES L. BLACK, JR., THE LAW OF ADMIRALTY 486 (2d ed. 1975).

The Louisiana Rule means that the owner of a breakaway vessel faces an uphill battle to avoid liability for damage caused by his vessel. The law imposes on him the burden to show that the other object was at fault, that he used reasonable care to secure his vessel, or that the accident was inevitable. The best way for owners to protect themselves from liability for breakaway vessels is to take all reasonable precautions to secure their vessels before the storm and document those precautions thoroughly.