The Fifth Circuit Explores a Maritime Dilemma in Barge Wreck

General maritime law holds that there can be no recovery for economic loss absent physical damage to or an invasion of a proprietary interest. The issue in many cases is whether or not any actual damage has occurred. In a recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, the court explores this very issue in order to determine whether the plaintiffs damages warranted recovery. Throughout the Mississippi River, refineries and various businesses operate, utilizing the river’s shipping channels to transport their goods and perform many of their business operations. However, if the river is blocked in any way, it hinders their production and hence, their ability to maintain scheduling and perform necessary tasks. The mere absence of access does not constitute physical damage, yet, it does constitute an injury to one’s proprietary interests. Thus, the court has to make the determination of whether or not the injured party was injured and in what way to make a ruling on any potential recovery.

The facts of the recent maritime case involve a plaintiff business who owns and operates a hydroelectric station on a privately owned channel from the Mississippi River. Near the plaintiffs property is the Mississippi River Flood Control Structures at Old River in Concordia Parish, Louisiana. The River Flood Control Station is made up of the intake channel which diverts water from the Mississippi River, a dam structure which contains the turbines, generators, and other machinery of the station, and the outflow channel which directs water from the dam to the Old River/red River/Atchafalaya River. The plaintiff’s owned the station and the surrounding property necessary for their business operations. On December 24, 2007 two tows operated by the defendant and a barge company collided on the Mississippi River approximately 2.5 miles upriver from the plaintiff’s intake channel. As a result of the collision, several barges broke free from the tow then drifted downriver into the intake channel of the plaintiff’s facility and became grounded on the east bank of the intake channel, lodging against the station. The physical damage may have resulted from one of the barges that had become lodged on the station, this physical presence obstructed the intake channel, which provided water to the turbine and generators of the plaintiff’s electric power generation facility. The presence of the barge forced the plaintiff to reduce flow of water in the intake channel into the turbine and thus, its output of electricity to prevent the barge from sinking and to allow safe access to the barge for its removal. After six hours without any progress, the plaintiff’s had to shut down six turbines and reduce the remaining two to minimum power because of the decreased flow of water directed to the turbines from the intake channel. In order to remedy the situation, a barge crane and a vessel were sent to enter the intake channel, offload the grounded barge’s cargo, tow the damaged barge away from the station where a larger barge crane could unload the barge’s cargo, so it could safely re-enter the Mississippi River. The entire process took almost ten hours to complete.

The plaintiff facility filed suit in a Louisiana state court seeking damages for the value of the electrical power it was unable to generate due to the physical presence and intrusion of the grounded barge. However, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that no physical damage was evidenced and thus, under general maritime law, no recovery was available. Upon appeal, the fifth circuit explored the general maritime law in order to determine whether or not the summary judgment holding was correct. The appropriate legal rule to analyze the initial claim was to apply the Robins rule. The rule of Robins carries numerous legal meanings, including: refusing recovery for negligent interference with “contractual rights,” as denying recovery for economic loss if that loss resulted from physical damage to the property of another. The rule’s goal was to exclude indirect economic repercussions, which can be widespread and open ended. Here, the defendants argued that the plaintiff suffered no physical harm. However, the appellate court agreed with the plaintiff’s, the mere presence of the barge in the intake channel, which was a functional part of the plaintiff’s facility, interfered with the unobstructed flow of water in the channel, impairing the ability of the facility to operate as designed. Thus, the harm qualifies as damage to its proprietary interests as general maritime law indicates warrants recovery. After all, the plaintiff’s had to actually turn off half of their business facilities machinery and reduce the power to the remaining two in order to allow the defendants the safe and speedy removal of their grounded barge. Without the plaintiff’s mitigating acts (turning off the majority of their machinery) they would have ru the risk of incurring physical damage their entire hydroelectric station.

The Fifth Circuit held that based on the fact that the defendants barge entered the plaintiff’s privately owned hydroelectric facility, causing the plaintiff’s physical damage to their property and invasion of their proprietary interest, they reversed the judgment of the district court dismissing its claims on summary judgment and remanded. this case illustrates that maritime law is a difficult and often complicated legal journey. In order to effectively protect your legal rights one should hire a competent and effective attorney.

If you have been involved in a maritime based legal dilemma, please call Toll Free the Berniard Law Firm, who can answer your questions and guide you every step of the way. The number is 1-866-574-8005. The Berniard Law Firm, experienced and effective.

Contact Information