Whenever two vessels collide, one of the first things owners will do is pull out the Navigation Rules to determine who was at fault. Sometimes the rules are easy to apply, as in the case of a sailboat being overtaken by a powerboat on an open stretch of water. Other times, the Navigation Rules can open the door to debate. The latter was the case in a 2019 collision between two vessels on the Mississippi River that involved Inland Rule 18.

Inland Navigation Rule 18 addresses vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver. The collision occurred near Chalmette, La. The plaintiff’s vessel was traveling down the middle of the Mississippi. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant’s vessel steered into their path and struck them, causing injury to crewmembers. The two sides found themselves in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana arguing the issue in a motion.

The plaintiff asserted that the defendant’s vessel had not displayed the ball-diamond-ball day shape indicating its restriction under Rule 27(b). And the defendant disputed the plaintiff’s assertion that it was performing an intentional swing maneuver.

The court examined Rule 3(g) in detail. The rule defines a vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver as “a vessel which, from the nature of her work, is restricted in her ability to maneuver as required by these rules and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel.” The court examined a long list of activities giving rise to the restriction, which included, among others, dredging, surveying, etc.

The defendant argued that Rule 18’s “nature of her work” requirement should extend to vessels engaged in un-anchoring operations. They based this argument on the statute’s language that “vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver include, but are not limited to ...”

The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, holding that the defendant’s un-anchoring procedures are not included in Rule 3(g)’s “nature of her work” requirement. The court felt that the defendant’s vessel was not restricted in its ability to maneuver.

The Navigation Rules can be straightforward, and they can be tricky, depending on the setting. Coast Guard license exam questions on the subject can be straightforward if one is able to visualize the respective vessel positions and headings described in multiple-choice answers. But in actual settings where millions of dollars could be at stake, things can get complicated when one side’s interpretation of the rules conflicts with the others.

Tim Akpinar is a Little Neck, N.Y. based maritime attorney and former marine engineer. He can be reached at 718-224-9824 or [email protected]