Admiralty’s Vestigial Tail: The Fifth Circuit Revitalizes the Outdated Pennsylvania Rule

Bryan J. Kitz | Note

The dredge MIKE HOOKS began dredging operations near the Wax Lake intersection of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in the early morning of May 31, 2008. The towboat CAP’N TOMMIE VIZIER JR. served as picket boat, assisting the dredge and passing vessel traffic. The current was particularly strong due to strong winds and high water levels. Under these adverse conditions, the towboat SARAH D collided with the dredge while traversing the Wax Lake intersection, damaging the MIKE HOOKS’s hull. The crew moored the dredge in the northwest corner of the 400- to 800-foot-wide Wax Lake intersection channel to repair her damaged hull.1 While in this location, another passing vessel, the PAT McDANIEL, allided with the MIKE HOOKS and caused further damage. The CAP’N TOMMIE VIZIER JR. did not physically assist the PAT McDANIEL in avoiding the MIKE HOOKS. The owner of the MIKE HOOKS brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against the owner of the PAT McDANIEL, who in response brought counterclaims and third-party claims against the owner of the CAP’N TOMMIE VIZIER JR.

In the ensuing bench trial, the district court determined that the MIKE HOOKS violated Inland Navigation Rule (INR) 9(g), which prohibits vessels from anchoring in narrow channels, by mooring in the channel of the Wax Lake intersection. Because the dredge violated INR 9(g), the court applied the Pennsylvania Rule and concluded that the vessel owner failed to rebut the rule’s presumption of causation. The court found the MIKE HOOKS 70% liable for the allision and the CAP’N TOMMIE VIZIER JR. and PAT McDANIEL each 15% liable. The owner of the MIKE HOOKS appealed, alleging that the court misapplied the Pennsylvania Rule.2 The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed and held that the district court properly applied the Pennsylvania Rule because: (1) INR 9(g) imparted a legal duty on the MIKE HOOKS, (2) INR 9(g) did not require antecedent proof that a vessel obstructed navigation, and (3) damage from the prior collision with the SARAH D did not excuse the MIKE HOOKS’s violation of INR 9(g). Mike Hooks Dredging Co. v. Marquette Transportation Gulf-Inland, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 886, 893-94, 2013 AMC 1949, 1956-58 (5th Cir. 2013).