This case involves an offshore supply vessel running into a platform’s pipeline after the vessel’s captain fell asleep. The court dismissed the vessel owner’s attempt to limit its liability because the owner failed to train its employees on proper radar use and also failed to equip the vessel with a Bridge Navigation Watch System.
On June 25, 2021, the ELLIOT CHERAMIE allided with a pipeline owned by Crescent Midstream, LLC connected to the platform EI-259A offshore Port Fourchon, Louisiana. The vessel was owned by Cheramie Marine, LLC. Claims for personal injuries and property damage were filed against Cheramie.
In response, Cheramie filed for limitation of liability under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30501. While Cheramie did not seriously dispute it was responsible for the incident, it wanted the court to limit its liability to around $777,000 under the Limitation Act. To do so, however, Cheramie had to prove that it lacked privity or knowledge of the negligence that caused the vessel to run into the pipeline.
The pipeline owner filed a motion for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss Cheramie’s request to limit its liability. Specifically, the pipeline owner alleged that Cheramie could not carry its burden of demonstrating lack of privity or knowledge within the meaning of the Limitation of Liability Act.
As support of its motion, the plaintiffs pointed to the the following arguments:
Argument one: the company had a similar incident in 2018 when its vessel the MISS REES allided with a fixed offshore platform when its captain fell asleep. Despite the 2018 incident, Cheramie remained unaware in 2021 that its vessels’ radar were equipped with proximity alarms. If activated properly, the proximity alarm would have alerted the 2021 sleeping captain about the platform in this case. It was not until Cheramie’s owners were preparing for their deposition in the 2021 case did they realize that this was an available feature.
Argument two: the company failed to install a Bridge Navigation Watch Alert System. A Bridge Navigation Watch Alert System is specifically designed to avert this type of accident (sleeping captain running his vessel into something). Specifically, a BNWAS works by monitoring the watch officer's presence and requires them to press a timer reset or operate navigation equipment at certain intervals. When the officer fails to press the button within preset intervals, alarms will be triggered in the wheelhouse. If the officer doesn’t respond, the alarm is transferred to other sections of the vessel to inform backup officers of the watch officer’s incapacity. The plaintiffs argued the company could have and should have installed this system, and, had they done so, the incident would not have happened. It was only until after the 2021 incident did the company decide to install one.
Argument Three: the company failed to comply with and enforce its fatigue management policy. The policy provided multiple measures to address the risk associated with working at night including allowing rest periods to allow night workers to catch up on their sleep debts. Further, the policy called for developing maximum average weekly working hours but the company did nothing to establish or enforce such a policy.
In opposition to these arguments, the company pointed to testimony that all of the captains were fully aware of the radar and course plotter alarms, but they chose not to use them for reasons individual to each captain. The company also argued that it properly trained its crew, but there was not a risk identified at the time of the allision that would trigger the fatigue management measures. The company also argued that its watch crew was only asleep on the job for a small percentage of their man-hours and objected to evidence of the post-2021 accident installation of the BNWAS on the ELLIOT as violative of Federal Rule of Evidence 407 (post remedial measures).
The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and dismissed the company’s limitation action.
First, the court ruled that the company was presumed negligent under the general maritime law because the vessel ran into a fixed structure. The court found the company failed to produce sufficient evidence to overcome this presumption before trial. The court also agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments that there was overwhelming evidence of company negligence.
Second, the court noted that the company had the burden of proving it did not have privity and knowledge of the negligent acts in order to limit its liability under the Limitation of Liability Act. The court found the company could not meet this burden considering it failed to train personnel on use of proximity alarms, failed to train its personnel on fatigue management, and failed to enforce 12-hour work rule.
Based on this, the court vacated the limitation action and dismissed the company’s request for limitation.
Here is a link to the decision:
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