The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered fault allocation in a case involving a fishing vessel and a stationary oil platform.
In Omega Protein Inc. v. Samson Contour Energy , Omega’s 396-ton steel fishing vessel, the Gulf Shore , struck Samson’s fixed platform off the coast of Louisana while navigating at night. Although weather, sea conditions and nighttime visibility were good, evidence revealed that the captain was operating with his wheelhouse lights illuminated, and the radar’s anti-collision alarm was not activated. The captain had also been distracted from his navigational duties just before the accident due to a problem with the vessel’s refrigeration system.
At trial, the captain was found to have violated the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea for failing to maintain a proper lookout. Thus, Samson argued, Omega Protein was solely responsible for the accident.
Typically, when a vessel strikes a fixed object such as a dock or platform, the vessel operator is presumed to be at fault under maritime law’s century-old Oregon Rule. A violation of a safety statute intended to prevent collisions can also trigger a presumption of fault. However, this can be overcome if the vessel operator can demonstrate contributing fault by the stationary object or prove that its statutory violation could not have been the cause of the accident. In this case, the vessel’s owner presented evidence that Samson’s platform was unlit on the night of the accident, a violation of federal regulations. Consequently, the presumption of fault was not applied against Omega.
Given the circumstances, which involved violations by both sides, the court concluded that the accident was the result of equal fault of both parties. The damages were split equally between Omega Protein and Samson.
The court also ruled that Omega Protein was entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the Gulf Shore under the Limitation of Liability Act because the accident resulted from the “navigational error” of the vessel captain, rather than some unseaworthy condition of the vessel or act of negligence of which Omega had prior knowledge.