The M/V ATINA ran into and damaged an offshore platform off the coast of Louisiana. There was significant damage (over $60 million) and the platform filed a lawsuit against the ATINA’s owners for compensation.
The ship’s master had been awake for 52-hours before the accident. He had just arrived in Louisiana from Turkey to take over as captain due to some serious operational issues with the prior captain.
After the accident, the ship’s company prepared three different incident reports with three different root cause analyses. The first blamed the navigational errors on the M/V ATINA’s bridge team. Then, at the insistence of its customers, it prepared a second report naming ineffective training and improper recruitment as root causes. Finally, after further pressure from other customers regarding discrepancies between its incident report and a report prepared by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it prepared a third report in which it identified fatigue as a root cause. The ship owner argued to the court that it only issued the second and third reports at the insistence of its customers and believed fatigue and training were not causes of the accident.
The platform owner filed a claim for punitive damages against the ship owner arguing that the ship’s conduct was so outrageous to warrant a punitive damage verdict.
Under general maritime law, punitive damages may be available if the plaintiff proves that the defendant’s behavior was “so egregious as to constitute gross negligence, reckless or callous disregard for the rights of others, or actual malice or criminal indifference.” The U.S. Supreme Court held that “[p]unitive damages are limited to cases of ‘enormity,’ that is, where a defendant’s conduct is outrageous, owing to gross negligence, willful, wanton, and reckless indifference for others’ rights, or even more deplorable conduct.” Further to hold a company responsible for those egregious acts, “the conduct must emanate from corporate policy or that a corporate official with policy-making authority participated in, approved of, or subsequently ratified the egregious conduct.”
The platform owner argued that the ship owner’s conduct was sufficiently outrageous to warrant punitive damages. It pointed to the following facts:
The ship owner was unwilling to to anchor ANTINA to allow proper training, rest and a proper master handover.
The ship owner allowed a sleep-deprived captain to take the helm of the vessel in the middle of the river at night.
The fatigue of the new master caused the ship to run into the platform.
The ship owner allegedly lied in its post-incident reports.
The ship on the other hand asserted there was no egregious conduct and that they did the best they could during a difficult, emergency situation. The ship pointed to the following facts:
The ship’s management took the developing situation with ATINA very seriously, convening the Emergency Response Team and dispatching a superintendent to the vessel.
The ship's management sent a replacement master to the ship and otherwise managed a fluid situation developing thousands of miles from its office.
The court found there were no facts to support punitive damages. It held there was no evidence that the ship owner engaged in a pattern of such violations as would demonstrate a callous disregard for others’ rights. Instead, the evidence showed that the company responded quickly to the situation regarding the first captain and explored several avenues for resolution. While it was undisputed that the master handover was done while underway in the river and that the second master had not slept for 52 hours before the accident, the court found there was no evidence that any corporate official knew of these facts. Further, there were others aboard the ship including the chief officer and pilot who helped navigate the vessel. Finally, the court found there was no evidence beyond pure conjecture that the ship owner’s actions were motivated by money or a desire not to put the ship off-hire.
Based on the above, the court dismissed the platform’s punitive damage claim against the ship.
A publicly available copy to the decision can be viewed through the following link:
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