Liability when Both Vessels Violate COLREGS

Monday, July 07, 2008


The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the determination of the federal district court regarding allocation of liability in a collision case where both ships had violated the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).  In the instant case, defendant’s tanker was entering Puget Sound.  In accordance with federal law, it hired two of plaintiff’s vessels to provide escort service.  In accordance with the pre-arranged transit plan, one of the escort vessels was to be tethered to the stern of the tanker and the other escort vessel was to position itself on the tanker’s port shoulder.  Plans called for the two escort vessels to rendezvous with the tanker by proceeding on a course of 058 degrees true at 12.5 knots while the tanker, which was approaching from the Pacific Ocean, would proceed on the same course, but at 15 knots, until the appropriate positions were attained.  The escort vessel that was to be on the tanker’s port shoulder failed to correct its course as steered to account for wind and currents.  The ensuing collision nearly capsized the escort vessel.  The court found the colliding vessels each violated two COLREGS.  It also found that the vessels were operating in concert and pursuant to agreed maneuvers (although this did not necessarily excuse violations of the COLREGS).  It then found that the actions of the escort vessel were more serious as regards causation.  The court also found that the master of the escort vessel had serious medical and alcohol problems that may have impacted his situational awareness and that the owner had a duty to conduct further inquiry before allowing this individual to serve as master of the escort vessel.  The federal district court allocated 70% of the liability against the owner of the escort vessel and 30% of the liability against the owner of the tanker.  In affirming this allocation, the appellate court stated: “it is precisely this type of fact-intensive decision that is committed by our precedent to the district court for its determination.”  Crowley Marine Services v. Maritrans Inc., No. 07-35237 (9th Cir., July 3, 2008). (HK Law)

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