A Decade Later, $1 Billion Saved: The Second Circuit Relieves a Maritime Classification Society of Unprecedented Liability for Environmental and Economic Damages in Reino de España v. American Bureau of Shipping, Inc.

Imran Naeemullah | Note

After sailing the world for more than a quarter century, the oil tanker PRESTIGE met a sudden demise in November 2002 when she sank 140 miles off the coast of Spain, following internal structural failure. Consequently, the PRESTIGE’s hazardous cargo of fuel oil spilled into the ocean, eventually washing onto Spain’s beaches and coastline. In response to the considerable impact on its environment and the associated economic ramifications, Spain filed suit against the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), which had classified the PRESTIGE throughout her career on behalf of her owner. Among other things, ABS’s classification services provided reassurance to the PRESTIGE’s owner that the vessel’s structural integrity conformed with ABS’s “applicable rules and requirements,” an endorsement that ABS formalized by issuing a classification certificate. Notably, Spain highlighted the role of classification societies, maintaining that organizations like ABS “form[] a crucial link in the ‘maritime safety chain,”’ an assertion that Spain relied on to argue that ABS owed third-party coastal nations a duty to perform classification surveys with due care. Acknowledging the policy considerations against an ordinary negligence claim, Spain detailed five key actions by ABS as proof of reckless conduct: first, not implementing changes to ABS’s classifica-tion rules; second, mishandling sophisticated computer reports; third, proceeding with classification after a cursory review of a field office report; fourth, ignoring a “red alert” fax from the PRESTIGE’s then-master; and fifth, operating with internal management issues.

This case features a lengthy and convoluted procedural history, a factor that plays into the significance of this case as a tactful, yet firm, repudiation of Spain’s claim. In 2008, five years after the initial filing in 2003, the District Court for the Southern District of New York granted summary judgment for ABS, finding lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The following year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated by summary order the lower court’s decision. On remand in 2010, the district court again granted summary judgment for ABS, holding that U.S. maritime law did not impose on ABS the claimed tort duty to Spain. On a second appeal in 2012–a decade after the PRESTIGE’s sinking–the Second Circuit held that Spain did not “establish[] a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether ABS . . . recklessly breached any duty that [it] might owe to Spain,” thus affirming the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for ABS. Reino de España v. American Bureau of Shipping, Inc., 691 F.3d 461, 476, 2012 AMC 2113, 2136 (2d Cir. 2012).