Justia Admiralty & Maritime Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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This case involves a lawsuit against the United States for allegations of negligence in a search-and-rescue mission by the U.S. Coast Guard. The plaintiffs, the estate of Aaron Greenberg (who drowned in a boating accident), Adrian Avena (who survived the accident), and AA Commercial, LLC, claimed that the Coast Guard was negligent in its response to the distress signal from their capsized vessel. They argued that the Coast Guard broadcasted incorrect information about the vessel in distress and did not deploy the closest helicopter for the rescue mission.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court's dismissal of the case, stating that the United States was immune from such a suit. According to the court, the plaintiffs failed to show how the Coast Guard's alleged negligence "increased the risk of physical harm" to Greenberg. The court noted that under the "Good Samaritan" doctrine, the Coast Guard would only be liable if its actions increased the risk of harm or if harm was suffered because of the plaintiffs' reliance on the Coast Guard. In this case, the court found that even if the Coast Guard had done nothing, the outcome would have been the same, thus the Coast Guard did not increase the risk of harm to Greenberg.Furthermore, the court denied the plaintiffs' motion for leave to amend their complaint, stating it would be futile as they had not identified any set of facts that could demonstrate how the Coast Guard's actions increased the risk of physical harm to Greenberg. View "Avena v. Avena" on Justia Law

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In 2023, the State of Texas, under the direction of Governor Greg Abbott, installed a floating barrier in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The United States government filed a civil enforcement action against Texas, alleging that the installation of the barrier violated the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 (“RHA”). The United States sought a preliminary injunction, which was granted by the district court, ordering Texas to cease work on the barrier and to relocate it to the Texas riverbank. Texas appealed this decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The Court of Appeals found that the United States demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its RHA claims. The court determined that the part of the Rio Grande where the barrier was installed was a navigable waterway and that the barrier constituted an obstruction to this waterway. The court also found that the barrier was a structure as defined by the RHA and that it had been constructed without necessary authorization.In addition, the court found that the United States had demonstrated that it was likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief. The court noted that the barrier strained diplomatic relations with Mexico, interfered with the ability of the International Boundary and Water Commission to implement the provisions of a treaty concerning the allocation of waters in the Rio Grande, and posed a risk to human life.The court also held that the balance of equities favored the United States and that the issuance of a preliminary injunction was in the public interest. Specifically, the court noted that the barrier threatened navigation and federal government operations on the Rio Grande, and also posed a potential threat to human life.Taking all of these factors into account, the court ruled that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting a preliminary injunction ordering Texas to cease work on the barrier and to relocate it. View "USA v. Abbott, No. 23-50632 (5th Cir. 2023)" on Justia Law

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On August 31, 2020, N&W Marine Towing (N&W) filed in federal district court a verified complaint in limitation, Case No. 2:20-cv-2390 (the Limitation Action), pursuant to the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 (Limitation Act) and Rule F of the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims. The Limitation Act provides that once a shipowner brings a limitation action “all claims and proceedings against the owner related to the matter in question shall cease.” The district court issued a Stay Order. Wooley, Turn Services (Wooley’s employer), and Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCC) (the owner of the Majesty of the Seas) all filed claims against N&W in the Limitation Action. N&W and Wooley cross-appeal. Seeking to remain in federal court. On cross-appeal, Wooley contends that the outcome of the case was correct, but if this court were to determine that N&W was properly joined, then Wooley contends the district court erred in denying his motion to remand. The main issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in dismissing an improperly joined, nondiverse defendant when the only independent jurisdictional basis for removal was admiralty jurisdiction.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that, like in Flagg, the Louisiana state court here would have had no choice but to dismiss Wooley’s claims against N&W because of the district court’s Stay Order. The district court could have retained jurisdiction over claims against RCC had RCC remained in the case. However the federal court could not retain jurisdiction over claims against a nondiverse defendant (N&W) without some other basis for federal jurisdiction over those claims. View "Trey Wooley v. N&W Marine Towing" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff fell while stepping from a dock to a boat. He sued his employer—a yacht club in Long Beach—under federal admiralty law. The trial court sustained the club’s final demurrer to the second amended complaint. The court ruled there was no admiralty jurisdiction.   The Second Appellate District affirmed the court’s ruling without deciding about admiralty jurisdiction. The court explained that Congress in 1984 specified employees covered by state workers’ compensation law working at a “club” are covered by state workers’ compensation law and not federal law if they are eligible for state workers’ compensation. The court wrote that Plaintiff concedes the yacht club is a “club.” Federal law thus makes California state workers’ compensation law paramount, which means Plaintiff’s exclusive remedy is workers’ compensation. The court wrote that a core part of the state workers’ compensation bargain is that injured workers get speedy and predictable relief irrespective of fault. In return, workers are barred from suing their employers in tort. Thus, the trial court correctly dismissed Plaintiff’s tort suit against his employer. View "Ranger v. Alamitos Bay Yacht Club" on Justia Law

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The United States Maritime Administration (“MARAD”) approved a shipping company’s request to replace two vessels operating in the Pacific trade within the Maritime Security Program. Matson Navigation Co., a competitor in the Pacific, petitions for review of the replacements. As a source of jurisdiction, Matson points to the Hobbs Act, under which the DC Circuit had original jurisdiction over some acts of MARAD.   The DC Circuit reversed two orders of the district court, consolidated with these petitions, that held jurisdiction over Matson’s claims under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) and was exclusive in the court of appeals. The court wrote that Matson was not a “party” to the replacement proceedings for either vessel, therefore, the court denied the petitions for direct review. The court explained that whether a case begins in district court or is eligible for direct review in the court is a policy decision that is for “Congress rather than us to determine.” The court wrote that as Matson’s counsel stated at oral argument, the company is just “trying to get review.” Because sending limited comments based on limited information to an informal agency proceeding does not confer “party” status under the Hobbs Act, that review starts in the district court. View "Matson Navigation Company, Inc. v. DOT" on Justia Law

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The 1976 Magnuson–Stevens Act contemplated “[a] national program for the conservation and management of the fishery resources of the United States,” 16 U.S.C. 1801(a)(6), and established the United States 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A 2007 amendment established national criteria for quota-based fishing programs, (limited access privilege programs) and authorized the quota-based fishing permits and licenses at issue in this Fifth Amendment takings claim, in which fishing businesses challenged four different permitting, licensing, and endorsement requirementsThe Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit for lack of a cognizable property interest in the fishing endorsements, licenses, and permits, separate from or appurtenant to their fishing vessels. Precedent establishes that fishing permits and licenses issued under the Act are revocable privileges, not compensable property interests. The Magnuson–Stevens Act refers to “congressional intent not to confer any right, title, or interest, and to preserve the government’s authority to revoke privileges enjoyed in” fishing licenses and permits. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s regulations did not create compensable property rights in permits or licenses. licenses; permits did not have the essential characteristics of compensable property—transferability and the right to exclude others. There is no inherent right in vessel ownership to fish within the EEZ. View "Fishermen's Finest, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Enacted after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), creates a comprehensive remedial scheme that governs—and apportions liability for—oil-removal costs. OPA holds oil spillers strictly liable upfront for oil-removal expenses and allows them, if they meet certain requirements, to avail themselves of one of three liability defenses and to seek contribution from other culpable parties. The M/V SAVAGE VOYAGER was transporting oil through a Mississippi waterway when an accident at a boat lift— operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—caused a rupture in the SAVAGE VOYAGER’s hull, through which thousands of gallons of oil poured into the river.The owners of the vessel sued the United States, not under the OPA, but under the common-law admiralty regime. They cited the Suits in Admiralty Act (SAA), a 1920 law by which Congress generally waived sovereign immunity for most admiralty claims. The interplay between the OPA and the SAA was an issue of first impression in the federal courts. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the vessel owner’s claims for removal costs. OPA authorizes no claim against the government for oil-removal damages and OPA’s comprehensive remedial scheme displaced the SAA’s more general sovereign-immunity waiver. View "Savage Services Corp. v. United States" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Michael and Crystal Haytasingh appealed a judgment entered in favor of defendants, City of San Diego (City) and Ashley Marino, a City lifeguard. Plaintiffs sued defendants after an incident that occurred at Mission Beach in San Diego in August 2013, while Michael Haytasingh was surfing and defendant Marino was operating a City-owned personal watercraft. Plaintiffs alleged Marino was operating her personal watercraft parallel to Haytasingh, inside the surf line, when she made an abrupt left turn in front of him. In order to avoid an imminent collision with Marino, Haytasingh dove off of his surfboard and struck his head on the ocean floor. Haytasingh suffered serious injuries. Plaintiffs alleged that Marino was negligent in her operation of the personal watercraft. Prior to trial, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ negligence cause of action, finding Government Code section 831.7 provided complete immunity to defendants on the plaintiffs’ negligence cause of action. After that ruling, plaintiffs amended their complaint to allege they were entitled to relief pursuant to two statutory exceptions to the immunity provided in section 831.7. The case proceeded to trial, and a jury ultimately found in favor of defendants. On appeal, plaintiffs contended the trial court erred in concluding that the immunity granted to public entities and their employees under section 831.7 barred plaintiffs from pursuing a cause of action for ordinary negligence against the City and Marino. Plaintiffs also contended the trial court erred when it concluded, prior to instructing the jury, that the City and its lifeguards were not required to comply with the state’s basic speed law set forth in Harbors and Navigation Code section 655.2. Plaintiffs contended the court’s instructional error with respect to the speed limit issue constituted reversible error because the state’s basic speed law was relevant to the standard of care that Marino was obliged to meet, and was therefore relevant to whether Marino’s conduct constituted an extreme departure from the standard of care. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court did not err in determining that section 831.7 provided defendants with complete immunity with respect to the plaintiffs’ cause of action for ordinary negligence, given that Haytasingh’s injuries arose from his participation in a hazardous recreational activity on public property. However, the Court also concluded the trial court erred in determining that Harbors and Navigation Code section 655.2’s five mile per hour speed limit did not apply to City lifeguards, and in instructing the jury that all employees of governmental agencies acting within their official capacities were exempt from the City’s five mile per hour speed limit for water vessels that are within 1,000 feet of a beach under San Diego Municipal Code. This error, the Court held, was prejudicial. It therefore reversed judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Haytasingh v. City of San Diego" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the opinion of the Workers' Compensation Board Appellate Division agreeing with the conclusion of the administrative law judge (ALJ) that Darla Potter, an aquaculture worker, was not a "seaman" within the meaning of the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.S. 30104, holding that the Appellate Division did not err.The Appellate Division affirmed the decree of the ALJ granting Potter's petitions for award of compensation for injuries sustained in the course of her employment with Cooke Aquaculture USA, Inc. At issue on appeal was whether Potter's claims fell within the jurisdiction of federal admiralty law or state workers' compensation law. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding that Potter was not a seaman within the purview of the Jones Act. View "Potter v. Great Falls Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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The Authority appealed the district court's grant of summary judgment to defendants, two vessels and their corporate owners, in an action brought under the federal Oil Pollution Act (OPA) and state law. The claims arose from the release of thousands of gallons of oil from a submarine power-transmission cable into Long Island Sound, which the Authority alleges was caused by the defendant vessels dropping anchor.The Second Circuit vacated the district court's order and held that the submarine cable is indeed "used for" one of the enumerated "purposes" in the OPA's definition of "facility." Consequently, the panel found that the cable system is used for at least one of the enumerated purposes in the statute. Therefore, the district court erred in dismissing the Authority's OPA claims and in concluding that the Authority's New York Oil Spill Law claims had to be brought in the parallel proceeding on that basis. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "Power Authority of the State of New York v. M/V Ellen S. Bouchard" on Justia Law