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Towboat not responsible for barges capsizing at dock

Updated: May 27, 2023

This case involves barges capsizing at a dock and causing damage. Damage claims were filed against the towboat that pushed the barges before they were moored at the dock alleging that the towboat negligently ran them aground during a prior voyage. The court rejected the damage claims and found the towboat was not responsible in anyway.

Kiewit Louisiana Company contracted with DP Concrete Products (DP) to manufacture 1000 pilings and to deliver them by barge from Vinton, Louisiana to Cameron, Louisiana. DP chartered two barges from McDonough Marine Services to carry the pilings. DP also chartered the towboat ZOIE to push the barges.

The ZOIE made three back-and-forth trips with the two barges. Between the third and fourth trip, two barges remained secured at the Liberty MOF facility for five days because of the New Year Holiday. During this time, the barges slowly took on water and eventually capsized causing a loss to their cargo and also causing damage to an adjacent dock, crane barge, crane and other barges. Damages totaled approximately $2 million.

Kiewit and DP blamed the ZOIE claiming her navigators negligently ran the barges aground during the prior voyage causing holes to develop in the hull. ZOIE’s owner B&J Marine disagreed claiming that the barges had preexisting damages which were not detectable during inspections such that B&J had no responsibility.

B&J filed an action for exoneration and/or limitation of liability asking the court to either exonerate it from liability or at the very least limit its liability to the value of the ZOIE plus pending freight which totaled $183,800.

The case proceeded to a bench trial at Lafayette federal court. A long list of experts testified at this trial including AIS experts, marine navigational experts, surveyors and naval architects.

In an effort to blame ZOIE and her owner for the accident, the plaintiffs’ hired experts to testify that the holes in the barge were more likely caused by the ZOIE running the barges aground. The court rejected these opinions finding there was no testimony or evidence the captains of the ZOIE ever intentionally ran the barge aground. After reviewing a mountain of testimony and evidence, the court ruled in favor of the ZOIE and her owner finding that the holes that developed in the barges before the capsizing were not attributable to any negligence of the ZOIE’s crew.

In rendering its decision, the court outlined the legal relationship between a towboat operator and a barge owner:

  1. A tug is obligated to provide reasonable care and skill as prudent navigator employ for the performance of similar service.

  2. A towage implies that that the towing vessel will be adequately powered, equipped and efficient.

  3. A towage implies that reasonable skill, energy, care and diligence will be exercised in the performance of the work.

  4. A towage implies the tug’s crew, tackle and equipment will be equal to the work to be accomplished in weather and circumstances to be expected.

  5. When the owner of a towboat undertakes to transport a barge/tow and to take entire charge of its navigation, the owner of the barge is liable for its seaworthiness and the owner of the tug for its safe navigation.

  6. The tug has an obligation to exercise the reasonable care and maritime skill that prudent navigators employ in performing similar services, and the burden of proving negligence is on the party that asserts it against the tug/pushboat.

Here is a copy of the decision:

In re B&J Marine
Download PDF • 381KB

Please contact us at or (504) 553-1435 if you have any question or would like to discuss.


Adam Davis Law Firm


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