Crowley Marine v. Maritrans

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Crowley Marine Services Inc. v. Maritrans Operating Company LP
United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, opinion by Hon. M. Margaret McKeown, Docket No. 04-35724, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 11368 (9th Cir. May 8, 2006)

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that agreed maneuvers between two vessels do not constitute a special circumstance excusing violation of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1989 ("COLREGS")

DMC Category Rating: Confirmed

This case note is contributed by attorney Alan M. Weigel of the firm of Healy & Baillie, LLP of New York. Healy & Baillie are the international contributors to the website for the United States

The plaintiff provided two escort tugs for the defendant oil tanker owner in the Puget Sound. The tanker and two tugs agreed that, as the tanker transited the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the tanker was to overtake the tugs, while all three vessels maintained the same course. One of the tugs deviated from the agreed course. The master of the tanker radioed the master of the deviating tug to inquire as to its status and the tug confirmed that everything was OK, but the tanker did not otherwise alter course or speed. A collision ensued. The district court for the Western District of Washington apportioned fault as 75 percent to the tug and 25 percent to the tanker, finding that even though the overtaking tanker collided with the tug being overtaken, because the two vessels were operating in concert according to agreed maneuvers, the situation presented "special circumstances" that provided an exception to the COLREGS pursuant to Rule 2(b) of the COLREGS.

Rule 2(b) provides:
(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.

In the absence of "special circumstances", the Overtaking Rule, Rule 13, provides that any vessel overtaking any other shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plain language of Rule 2 precluded a broad exception for "generic special circumstances" such as "vessels operating in concert and pursuant to agreed maneuvers." The Court held that a vessel perceiving a risk of collision is not released from the COLREG’s requirement to take precautionary measures simply because it is engaged in a predetermined maneuver. Instead, the Court held that Rule 2 only justified a departure from the COLREGS in order to "avoid immediate danger."

The Court found that the evidence established that the tanker had violated COLREGS Rule 8, requiring vessels to take action to prevent a collision, and COLREGS Rule 13, requiring overtaking vessels to keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken. The Court held that those Rules should have been considered in the allocation of liability. The Court noted that assessment of the blameworthiness of each party’s conduct leading to a determination of comparative fault ultimately depends not only on the Rules that each party violated but on whether those violations actually caused the collision, considering all the facts of the case.

The Court reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case to the district court to reconsider the relative liability of the parties and instructed the district court to consider the pre-arranged escort plan, along with all the other facts, when it apportions fault.

In holding that the special circumstances Rule did not apply to vessels engaged in pre-arranged maneuvers, the Court declined to adopt the analysis of several older cases cited by the district court predating the contemporary COLREGS because those cases did not interpret Rule 2 and, in the Court’s view, conflicted with the plain meaning of the current COLREGS. The Court suggested that Rule 2 applies to facts where an adherence to the COLREGS would lead to an "impending unavoidable collision" or there is "an immediate danger, perfectly clear; and the departure from the Rules must be no more than is necessary." Thus, the Court narrowly construed Rule 2 and declined to employ it to excuse a violation of the plain mandate of more specific COLREGS provisions.

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