Justia Admiralty & Maritime Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Admiralty & Maritime Law
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The plaintiff, Mary Rodgers-Rouzier, worked as a bartender on steamboats operated by American Queen. She alleged that she and her coworkers were wrongly denied overtime wages. Rodgers-Rouzier filed a suit as a collective action, and over one hundred of her coworkers joined her proposed collective action. Meanwhile, American Queen moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Rodgers-Rouzier had agreed to arbitration. The district court denied the motion, but American Queen moved again to dismiss based on the arbitration agreement, this time invoking Indiana state law. The district court granted this motion, over Rodgers-Rouzier’s objections.The district court had previously denied American Queen's motion to dismiss the case for improper venue because Rodgers-Rouzier had agreed to arbitration. However, American Queen then moved again to dismiss based on the arbitration agreement, this time invoking Indiana state law. The district court granted this motion, over Rodgers-Rouzier’s objections that American Queen had waived its argument and the court lacked authority to apply Indiana law in this context. The court further determined that all the workers who had filed consent forms were not parties to the action.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's decision. The court concluded that although American Queen’s arguments were not waived and the court had authority to enforce the arbitration agreement under Indiana law, Indiana law would hold American Queen to its bargain that its arbitration agreement was governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Therefore, Rodgers-Rouzier’s case may continue in federal court. The court did not decide whether it may do so as a collective action and left that question for further litigation. View "Rodgers-Rouzier v. American Queen Steamboat Operating Company, LLC" on Justia Law

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The United States Coast Guard seized a vessel in the Dominican Republic's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that bore no nationality indicators. The crew claimed Colombian nationality for the vessel, but Colombia could not confirm or deny the vessel's registry, rendering it stateless under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA). The vessel was found to contain drugs, leading to the arrest and prosecution of the crew members, Jhonathan Alfonso, Jose Jorge Kohen, and Jose Miguel Rosario-Rojas, under the MDLEA.The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the MDLEA was unconstitutional as applied to them because they were arrested in the EEZ, which they asserted is not part of the "high seas" as defined by customary international law. The district court denied the motion, concluding that it had subject matter jurisdiction under the MDLEA. The defendants subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court concluded that the EEZ is part of the "high seas" and thus within Congress’s authority under the Felonies Clause. The court also concluded that the defendants could not show any plain error with regard to the MDLEA’s definition of a vessel without nationality as including vessels where registry is asserted but cannot be confirmed or denied by the foreign country. View "United States v. Alfonso" on Justia Law

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The case involves the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance (Soundkeeper), an environmental organization, and the Port of Tacoma and SSA Terminals, LLC (collectively, the Port), operators of the West Sitcum Terminal, a marine cargo terminal. The dispute centers on a portion of the terminal known as "the Wharf," where stormwater runoff carries pollutants into Puget Sound. The Soundkeeper alleges that the Port violated the Clean Water Act by not implementing stormwater controls across the entire facility, including the Wharf. The Port argues that the Wharf is not subject to regulation because it does not conduct industrial activities that require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.The case was first heard in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, which granted partial summary judgment in favor of the Port. The court concluded that the Industrial Stormwater General Permits (ISGPs) issued by the Washington State Department of Ecology did not extend coverage to the Wharf, as the Wharf did not conduct the industrial activities specified in the permits.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed in part and vacated in part the district court's decision. The appellate court held that the plain text of the 2010 and 2015 ISGPs required a transportation facility conducting industrial activities to implement stormwater controls across the entire facility. Therefore, the Port needed to implement appropriate stormwater controls across the Terminal while the 2010 and 2015 ISGPs were in effect. The court also held that the ISGPs were enforceable in a citizen suit, even if they exceeded the requirements of the federal regulations.However, the court vacated the district court's decision regarding the 2020 ISGP, which was subject to an ongoing state-court challenge, and remanded the case for further consideration. The court instructed the district court to consider the effect of the state proceedings on this case. View "PSA V. PORT OF TACOMA" on Justia Law

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VT Halter Marine (VTHM), a shipbuilder, contracted to build a barge and a tug for a client. During construction, over a thousand steel flange plates were incorrectly bent due to the use of an improperly sized die, leading to thinning and cracking of the plates. The faulty plates were installed onto the vessels, and the cracking was discovered later. The cost of replacing and repairing the cracked flange plates amounted to approximately $3,300,000. VTHM submitted a claim to their insurer, Certain Underwriters of Lloyd’s of London (Underwriters), for the cracked flange plates.The Underwriters denied VTHM's claim, asserting that the policy excluded coverage for faulty workmanship and the cost of replacing or repairing improper or defective materials. VTHM contested the denial, leading to a lawsuit for breach of contract. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment in the trial court. The trial court granted Underwriters' motion for summary judgment, ruling that the policy unambiguously excluded coverage for faulty workmanship and the cost of repairing, replacing, or renewing any improper or defective materials.In the Supreme Court of Mississippi, VTHM appealed the trial court's decision, arguing that the flanges were part of the vessel and coverage for faulty workmanship exists if it results in cracking of the vessel. The Supreme Court, however, affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court found that the insurance policy unambiguously excluded the cost of replacing or repairing improper or defective materials. The court concluded that the faulty workmanship directly resulted in improper materials being installed, and the only resulting damage was to the improper materials themselves. Therefore, VTHM's claim for the costs of repairing and/or replacing the improper materials installed was not covered under the policy. View "VT Halter Marine, Inc. v. Certain Underwriters of Lloyd's of London" on Justia Law

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The case involves a personal injury action brought by Earlene McBride against Carnival Corporation. McBride fell out of her wheelchair while being assisted by a Carnival crewmember, Fritz Charles, during disembarkation from a Carnival cruise ship. McBride claimed that she suffered severe injuries due to the fall and sued Carnival for negligence.The case was initially heard in the Southern District of Florida. During the trial, the court allowed the deposition testimony of Charles to be presented to the jury over McBride's objection. The jury awarded McBride economic damages for past medical expenses related to the fall but did not award her any damages for past pain and suffering. McBride appealed the district court's judgment, arguing that the court erred in allowing Charles's deposition testimony to be presented to the jury and that the jury's verdict was inadequate because it did not award her past pain and suffering damages.The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to allow Charles's deposition testimony to be presented to the jury. The court found that McBride had waived her objection to the use of the deposition by not raising it at the appropriate time during the trial. However, the court reversed the district court's denial of McBride's motion for a new trial on the issue of past pain and suffering damages related to the past medical expenses the jury awarded. The court found that the jury's verdict was inadequate as a matter of law because there was uncontradicted evidence that McBride suffered at least some pain in the immediate aftermath of the wheelchair incident. The case was remanded for a new trial limited to the issue of past pain and suffering damages related to the past medical expenses the jury awarded. View "McBride v. Carnival Corporation" on Justia Law

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The case involves Puerto Rico Fast Ferries LLC ("Fast Ferries") and Mr. Cade, LLC and SeaTran Marine, LLC ("SeaTran") (collectively, "defendants-appellees"). Fast Ferries had entered into a Master Time Charter Agreement with Mr. Cade, LLC to charter the motor vessel Mr. Cade and procure a licensed crew. The agreement contained mediation and forum-selection clauses. When the final Short Form expired, Fast Ferries returned the vessel to its home port in Louisiana. A year later, Fast Ferries filed a complaint against Mr. Cade, LLC and SeaTran alleging breach of contract and liability pursuant to culpa in contrahendo. The defendants-appellees moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the Master Agreement was still in effect and required a written agreement for the charter of M/V Mr. Cade.The district court granted the motion to dismiss in part, concluding that the Master Agreement did not contain a termination date and remained in effect. Therefore, the contract's mediation and forum-selection clauses were binding on the parties. However, the district court did not address Fast Ferries' argument that SeaTran was not a signatory of the agreement and, therefore, could not invoke the mediation and forum-selection clauses contained therein.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court's order on the defendants-appellees' motion to dismiss. The court held that the Master Agreement was still in effect and that SeaTran, despite being a non-signatory, could enforce the Master Agreement's mediation and forum-selection clauses. The court reasoned that Fast Ferries' claims against SeaTran were necessarily intertwined with the Master Agreement, and thus, Fast Ferries was equitably estopped from avoiding the mediation and forum-selection clauses with respect to SeaTran. View "Puerto Rico Fast Ferries LLC v. SeaTran Marine, LLC" on Justia Law

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The case involves Kholkar Vishveshwar Ganpat, an Indian citizen, who contracted malaria while working as a crew member on a Liberian-flagged ship managed by Eastern Pacific Shipping Pte., Limited (EPS), a Singaporean company. Ganpat alleges that EPS failed to adequately provision the ship with antimalarial medication for its voyage to Gabon, a high-risk malaria area in Africa. Ganpat's illness resulted in gangrene, amputation of several toes, and a 76-day hospitalization. He filed a lawsuit against EPS in the United States, seeking relief under the Jones Act and the general maritime law of the United States. He also asserted a contractual claim for disability benefits.The district court initially deferred making a choice-of-law ruling. However, after discovery, the court ruled that the law of the United States (the Jones Act and general maritime law) governs Ganpat’s tort claims and claim for breach of the collective bargaining agreement. EPS appealed this decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's decision. The appellate court disagreed with the district court's assessment of the Lauritzen-Rhoditis factors, which are used to determine whether maritime claims are governed by the law of the United States or the conflicting law of a foreign nation. The appellate court found that none of the factors that the Supreme Court has deemed significant to the choice-of-law determination in traditional maritime shipping cases involve the United States. The court concluded that Ganpat’s maritime tort and contract claims should be adjudicated under the substantive law of Liberia, the flag state of the ship on which Ganpat was working when he contracted malaria. The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "Ganpat v. Eastern Pacific Shipping" on Justia Law

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The case involves Maximiliano Fígaro-Benjamín, a co-conspirator in a multi-defendant drug conspiracy case. Fígaro-Benjamín was part of a crew that transported cocaine between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas on a vessel named the Black Wolfpack. The crew was intercepted by federal agents in January 2018. Fígaro-Benjamín was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to import controlled substances into the U.S. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 292 months in prison.Fígaro-Benjamín appealed his sentence, arguing that the district court relied on unreliable evidence at sentencing and incorrectly calculated his sentence. He also claimed that the court did not adequately explain its sentence. His arguments were based on the testimony of a co-conspirator, José Javier Resto Miranda, who testified at the trial of Fígaro-Benjamín's co-defendants.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Fígaro-Benjamín's arguments did not hold up. It ruled that the sentencing court did not err in considering Resto's testimony, which was reliable and corroborated by other evidence. The court also found that the sentencing court correctly calculated Fígaro-Benjamín's guidelines sentencing range and did not err in finding that he was a supervisor in the trafficking operation. Lastly, the court found that the sentencing court adequately explained its sentence. View "US v. Figaro-Benjamin" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute over the construction of an offshore wind project aimed at reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The project, proposed by Vineyard Wind 1, LLC, was expected to provide energy sufficient to power 400,000 Massachusetts homes. However, residents of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket opposed the project, arguing that federal agencies failed to properly assess the potential impact of the project on the endangered North Atlantic right whale.Previously, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts had granted summary judgment in favor of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Vineyard Wind, rejecting the residents' challenge to a biological opinion issued by the NMFS and relied on by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in permitting the construction of the wind power project.In the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the residents challenged the lower court's decision, arguing that the NMFS's determination that the incidental harassment of up to twenty right whales constituted a "small number" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful. They also argued that NMFS's consideration of the "specified activity" and the "specific geographic region" within which that activity would occur for purposes of issuing the Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) to Vineyard Wind was impermissibly narrow in scope.The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision, finding that the NMFS's determination was not arbitrary or capricious and that it had properly delineated the "specific geographic region" for the purposes of the IHA. The court also found that the residents' concerns about the broader effect of the project on the right whale population were unwarranted, as the agency had considered the impact on the entire right whale population in its "negligible impact" analysis, its biological opinion, and in its participation in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's Environmental Impact Statement. View "Melone v. Coit" on Justia Law

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This case revolves around a series of maritime accidents caused by the breakaway of a drillship, the DPDS1, owned by Paragon Asset Company, during Hurricane Harvey in Port Aransas, Texas. Paragon had hired two tugboats owned by Signet Maritime Corporation to keep the vessel moored to the dock during the storm. However, the DPDS1 broke from its moorings, collided with both Signet tugs, and ran aground in the Corpus Christi ship channel. It later refloated and collided with a research pier owned by the University of Texas.The district court found Paragon solely liable for the breakaway, applying maritime negligence law. It concluded that Paragon had unreasonably relied on inaccurate reports about the strength of its mooring system and failed to call for an evacuation when it was the prudent course of action. The court also found that Signet and Paragon were equally liable for the damages suffered by the University of Texas due to the failure of a third tug, supplied by Signet, to prevent the vessel's collision with the pier.Paragon appealed, arguing that the court should have applied a "towage law" standard of duty to Signet's services and contested the district court's rejection of a force majeure defense. Paragon also disputed the court's determination regarding which contract between the parties governed Signet's services.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. It found no error in the application of maritime negligence law, rejected Paragon's force majeure defense, and agreed with the lower court's determination that Signet's Tariff governed the services provided during Hurricane Harvey. View "Paragon Asset v. American Steamship" on Justia Law