In a maritime case, one of an injured worker’s biggest hurdles to recovery is the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. This 170-year-old law allows fleet owners and shipping companies to hide behind the value of their ship after they’ve committed acts of negligence. For instance, if a crew member is injured in an offshore incident, the company can limit the worker’s total recovery to the ship’s monetary worth. In situations where a ship is completely lost, a company can limit a worker’s recovery to zero—essentially robbing them of compensation.
At Arnold & Itkin, we have seen the same playbook again and again: days after a serious wreck or loss of life, a billion-dollar company will sue grieving families or injured workers to limit their recovery. A Limitation of Liability action even forces survivors and families to bring a case forward within six months or forfeit their right to recovery. It’s cruel, hostile, and unjust. Our offshore injury law firm has faced the Limitation of Liability Act numerous times in court, and we’ve beaten it every time. So today, we’re thrilled to announce a massive victory that Attorney Adam Lewis won for his client, overcoming a frankly heinous use of the Limitation of Liability Act.
First, let’s tell his story.
Sailing Into Rough Conditions
On May 16, 2019, the American Liberty was being loaded with petroleum at the Marathon dock in Louisiana and was about to return to Tampa Bay to deliver the cargo. That night, the river was in flood stages, with water traveling much faster and at a higher volume than usual. Despite hazardous conditions, the company operating the vessel (Crowley) had their crew continue forward with the trip requiring the vessel to perform a turnaround maneuver to head downriver towards the Gulf of Mexico.
As is typical practice in the lower Mississippi, a Federal Pilot came on board to assist the crew with the maneuver and navigation. Pilots are not crew members or employed by the vessel owners. Instead, they’re local advisors to help ensure ships pass safely through the Mississippi.
As a part of this process, and per Coast Guard regulations, the crew or company must give the Pilot any information about the vessel necessary to guide it. These regulations require the crew to inform the Pilot of any of the vessel’s unique characteristics that may affect its navigation and maneuverability during the voyage.
The American Liberty was designed with such unique vessel characteristics, including limitations on the vessel engines—limitations that affected the vessel’s ability to provide maximum engine output when requested. Despite these characteristics, and the vessel’s responsibility to inform the Pilot, Crowley never provided guidance or training to the crew of the American Liberty of such requirements. As a result, the Pilot was not provided any information or knowledge on these unique characteristics.
At the Mercy of the Mississippi
On the night of the underlying voyage, the American Liberty was being turned around from the Marathon dock to navigate down the Mississippi. During this process, assist tugs are utilized to help stabilize and assist the vessel. As the vessel performs the maneuver, with the Federal Pilot advising the crew, there is a small window of time where the vessel is broadside to the river. It’s at this point that the vessel is the most subject to the river’s current. To keep the vessel from getting washed away by the river, a Pilot will turn the ship as quickly as possible so it’s facing the right direction. At this point during the process, the Pilot was doing precisely that—and had detached one of two assisting tugboats from the vessel in completion of the maneuver.
It was while the Pilot was detaching the assist tugs that the Crowley captain first informed the Federal Pilot with an alarming, yet critical, piece of information: the vessel was incapable of accelerating quickly, meaning they were about to be at the mercy of a fast-moving, flooded river with limited control for a potentially disastrous amount of time. The Pilot had no warning that the ship had an issue moving quickly, a fact that proved vital. This missing information was in direct violation of U.S. Coast Guard Regulations.
With the vessel acting as a sitting duck, and the Mississippi River traveling at high speeds, the crew quickly lost control. The river forced the vessel into the riverbank, resulting in the massive vessel striking several boats moored along the docks—causing tens of millions of dollars in property damage and injuring several members of a crane barge. Arnold & Itkin’s clients were caused serious injuries, including a brain injury and orthopedic injuries that required multiple surgeries. Eventually, the ship halted against a wharf downriver, but not before putting the crew (and Pilot) through a deeply harrowing experience.
Crowley Denies Responsibility
Big vessels often have a governor—a speed limiter designed to help to save money on fuel. It prevents ships from accelerating too quickly. There’s a way to override governors, if the captain allows it. In fact, in situations like this one, the captain is supposed to turn off the governor or tell the Pilot about it.
In this situation, Crowley did neither.
The Pilot was handling a vessel with a serious, reversible flaw—but the company did nothing to warn him, violating Coast Guard regulations. On top of that, while the injured were still recovering and being treated with extensive medical care, Crowley attempted to pin the accident on the Pilot. Not only did they sue under the Limitation of Liability Act, but they ultimately claimed that the Pilot was 100% at fault for the accident.
It’s these kinds of legal maneuvers that Arnold & Itkin fights against on a regular basis.
Our legal team immediately went on the offensive, countering the Limitation of Liability Act. Arnold & Itkin lawyers took over a dozen depositions in preparation for trial. The case was ultimately tried in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana. After thorough preparation and advocacy, the judge eventually ruled in our favor, finding Crowley and the vessel owner 100% at fault for the accident.
We hope this case is a lesson for both maritime workers and maritime companies. For workers, we hope this shows how a Limitation action is not always unbeatable—with enough preparation and relentless work, any company can be held accountable. For companies, we hope this shows that, for as long as our firm is on the other side of the courtroom, no outdated law or legal bullying will keep us from seeking justice.
Congratulations to Adam and our clients. This was a victory we’ll remember for a long time.