In the middle of the night, a 29-foot World Cat offshore recreational fishing vessel ran into the north side of the Main Pass 37 BE Platform off the coast of Louisiana. The boat was going 20 to 25 miles per hour when it struck the platform so all the occupants were injured from impact. Following the incident, various lawsuits were filed.
All of the occupants filed lawsuits against the platform owner claiming it failed to properly light the platform in accordance with federal regulations for the fixed platform. The passengers also filed lawsuits against the boat’s driver claiming he was negligent for running the boat into a large platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
The driver of the boat filed a limitation of liability action in New Orleans federal court. Although the court initially allowed the limitation of liability action to stand, it later granted the platform owner’s motion for partial summary judgment regarding the driver’s entitlement to limitation of liability because the court determined the driver was at least partially at fault for the incident and had knowledge and privity of his own actions (i.e. for personally driving his boat into the platform). The court then dissolved the limitation action.
Whether the platform was properly lit in accordance with federal regulations was hotly contested at trial. However, the following two facts were uncontested::
one side of the platform was longer than 30 feet; and
there was only one light installed on the platform.
Further, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”) had inspected the platform on various occasions before the incident. The platform owner provided evidence that it passed all the inspections and claimed these passed inspections meant only having one light on the platform was acceptable to the federal government. To counter this, the injured boat occupants introduced testimony from the BSEE inspector that it was not part of an inspector’s job to measure oil platforms and confirm they had an adequate number of nav aid lights under applicable regulations; rather, he testified that BSEE inspectors were focused on the functionality of the nav aids.
Was the single nav aid functioning during the incident?
The court was first tasked with deciding whether the single nav aid light was functioning at the time of the incident. The court heard testimony from the U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer where he recalled seeing a light on the platform when he rescued the injured boat occupants. The occupants of the boat denied ever seeing a light. Further, the nav aid in question underwent several post-incident tests and the results were introduced at trial. After considering all of the testimony and evidence, the court found that the light was working properly.
Allocation of fault: the platform was 15% at fault
Despite determining that the single nav aid on the platform was working at the time of the incident, the court found that this fact did “not end the inquiry” into the platform owner’s fault. The court considered 33 C.F.R. § 67.05-1(b), which provides:
Structures having a maximum horizontal dimension of over 30 feet, but not in excess of 50 feet, on any one side, or in diameter, shall be required to have two obstruction lights installed on diagonally opposite corners, 180° apart, or as prescribed by the District Commander, each light to have a 360° lens.
The regulation further provides that “all obstruction lights shall be installed in a manner which will permit at least one of them to be carried in sight of the mariner, regardless of the angle of approach, until the mariner is within 50 feet of the structure, visibility permitting.”
Because it was undisputed the platform had a side that was between 30 and 50 feet and only had only one aid nav light, the court determined that the platform violated the plain language of 33 C.F.R. § 67.05-1(b). This statutory violation prompted the application of the Pennsylvania Rule.
Under the Pennsylvania Rule, the burden of causation shifted to the platform owner to prove that its failure to light the platform with two lights was not a cause of the incident. The court determined that the platform owner failed to carry this burden. The court determined had the platform had two working nav aid lights, the boat driver would have been more likely to see one of them to avoid the platform. Based on this, the court allocated 15% fault to the platform.
Allocation of fault: the boat driver was 85% at fault
The court determined the driver of the recreational fishing boat was negligent and grossly negligent for several reasons:
He was negligent for leaving safe harbor before the incident despite knowing there were mechanical issues with his vessel.
He was negligent in turning off his radar at night before the incident to conserve electricity due to the mechanical issues with his vessel.
He was traveling at a negligently fast speed considering his radar was off.
He was negligent for violating several Navigation Rules of the Road.
He was negligent for failing to appoint a lookout.
He was negligent in choosing the route he took back to shore before the incident.
He was grossly negligent in failing to see the platform and the nav aid light.
Based on the driver’s negligence and gross negligence, the court allocated 85% fault to him for the incident.
A copy of the decision can be accessed through the following link:
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