A tow is pushing a barge up the Mississippi River. This single barge will be connected with others for a longer haul.

By McClain R. Schonekas

The M/V HANNAH C. SETTOON, owned and operated by Settoon Towing, L.L.C. (“Settoon”), was towing two crude oil tank barges on the Mississippi River when an attempted passage around the M/V LINDSAY ANN ERICKSON and its tow went badly resulting in a spill of 750 barrels of crude oil. The spill closed a 70-mile stretch of the river to vessels for 48 hours for cleanup and recovery. The United States Coast Guard named Settoon the strictly liable Responsible Party under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (“OPA 90”) (codified at 33 U.S.C. §§ 2701–2762), requiring it to carry out the cleanup and remediation. Settoon subsequently filed a Limitation of Liability proceeding seeking to limit its civil liability to the total value of the vessel and its freight. Marquette Transportation Company, L.L.C. (“Marquette”), owner of the M/V LINDSAY ANN ERICKSON, filed a claim. Settoon filed a counterclaim against Marquette seeking contribution under the OPA, general maritime law, or both.

Following a four-day bench trial on liability, the district court found both parties at fault for the collision, apportioning 35% of fault to Settoon and 65% to Marquette. The district court also found that Settoon, the Responsible Party, was entitled to contribution for purely economic damages from Marquette, in proportion to its liability. Marquette appealed, arguing that OPA 90 does not allow a Responsible Party to obtain contribution from a partially-liable third party, and even if it does, the district court clearly erred in its allocation of fault. A unanimous panel anchored by an experienced admiralty jurist affirmed the district court.

Judge Southwick, writing for the panel, methodically analyzed the applicable provisions of OPA 90 and dissected Marquette’s statutory argument, ultimately disposing of it. Simply stated, Marquette argued that the right to contribution from a jointly negligent party did not arise under OPA 90. Instead, Marquette contended that any contribution it owed was based on general maritime law and therefore limited by the Robins Dry Dock bar to purely economic damages.[1]

Highlighting the relevant section of OPA 90, at 33 U.S.C. §§ 2709,[2] the panel held “that contribution is available under the OPA.” Despite its clever argument, the panel rebuffed Marquette’s invitation to apply general maritime law and the Robins Dry Dock bar to purely economic damages. The Court stated,

We conclude that the most reasonable interpretation of the language of the OPA, as confirmed by the Act’s legislative history, grants to an OPA Responsible Party the right to receive contribution from other entities who were partially at fault for a discharge of oil. Specifically, a Responsible Party may recover from a jointly liable third party any damages it paid to claimants, including those arising out of purely economic losses.[3]

Unsurprisingly, the panel also quickly disposed of Marquette’s argument that the district court clearly erred in its allocation of fault. AFFIRMED.

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[1] In Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co. v. Flint, 275 U.S. 303 (1927), a time-charterer of a steamship brought an action against the Dry Dock Company to recover for loss of use of the steamer whose delivery was delayed by the Dry Dock Company’s negligence. The Court found that the time-charter had no cause of action against the Dry Dock Company for the loss of use of the vessel because, among other reasons, the docking contract between the vessel owner and the Dry Dock Company was not for the time-charterer’s direct benefit.

[2] This Section states, “A person may bring a civil action for contribution against any other person who is liable or potentially liable under this Act or another law. The action shall be brought in accordance with section 2717 of this title.”

[3] In re Settoon Towing, L.L.C., No. 16-30459, 2017 WL 2486018, at *10 (5th Cir. June 9, 2017).