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Shell Offshore, Inc. v. Tesla Offshore, L.L.C.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

February 18, 2015




LANCE M. AFRICK, District Judge.

Before the Court is a motion[1] for partial summary judgment filed by defendants, International Offshore Services, L.L.C. and International Marine, LLC (collectively, "International"). Plaintiff, Shell Offshore Inc. ("Shell"), and defendant, Tesla Offshore LLC ("Tesla"), oppose the motion.[2] For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.


For the purposes of deciding this motion, the material facts are straightforward and undisputed. Tesla time-chartered the M/V INTERNATIONAL THUNDER from International for the purpose of conducting an underwater archeological survey of the seafloor.[3] Tesla installed surveying equipment on the THUNDER, including a sonar "towfish" ("fish"), which was an 89" metal tube towed by a winched cable.[4] On November 2, 2012, while the "fish" was deployed from and being pulled by the THUNDER at the end of 14, 000 feet of cable, the fish hit a mooring line holding in place the DEEPWATER NAUTILUS, a drilling rig owned by Shell.[5] This case arises out of that alleged allision.


Summary judgment is proper when, after reviewing the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits, the court determines there is no genuine issue of material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. "[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment need not produce evidence negating the existence of material fact, but need only point out the absence of evidence supporting the other party's case. Id .; Fontenot v. Upjohn Co., 780 F.2d 1190, 1195 (5th Cir. 1986).

Once the party seeking summary judgment carries its burden pursuant to Rule 56, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The showing of a genuine issue is not satisfied by creating "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ' by conclusory allegations, ' by unsubstantiated assertions, ' or by only a scintilla' of evidence." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Instead, a genuine issue of material fact exists when the "evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party responding to the motion for summary judgment may not rest upon the pleadings, but must identify specific facts that establish a genuine issue. Id. The nonmoving party's evidence, however, "is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [the nonmoving party's] favor." Id. at 255; see also Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999).


International moves for partial summary judgment as to three issues: (1) whether Tesla's fish was a vessel, (2) whether the THUNDER pulling the fish behind it constitutes "towing" in a legal sense, and (3) whether Tesla was solely responsible for its personnel and operation of the fish.

A. Was the THUNDER "Towing" the Fish?

The THUNDER pulled the fish behind it on a long cable. Any ordinary person would describe this as "towing, " and International concedes that the participants in this case, counsel for International included, have likewise used that term.[6] Indeed, some witnesses refer to the fish as a "towfish."[7] Before attaching legal consequences to that characterization, however, the Court must be more precise and apply whatever definition of "towing" pertains to the potentially applicable law. Cf. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 ("As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material."). The parties agree that whether the THUNDER was engaged in "towing" the fish is a question of law based on undisputed facts.[8]

According to International, "both Shell and Tesla have sought to characterize the Tesla survey work as actual towage within the meaning of the maritime law, and have had their experts criticize the master of the THUNDER on duty at the time of the allision for not having a towing endorsement."[9] A Coast Guard regulation states that, "No person may serve as a master or mate (pilot) of any towing vessel without meeting the requirements of §§ 15.805(a)(5) or 15.810(d) of this part." 46 C.F.R. § 15.910 (emphasis added).[10] The United States Code defines "towing vessel" as "a commercial vessel engaged in or intending to engage in the service of pulling, pushing, or hauling along side, or any combination of pulling, pushing, or hauling along side." 46 U.S.C. § 2101(40).[11]

The THUNDER was indisputably a commercial vessel, and it indisputably engaged in the service of pulling-it pulled the fish. The plain language of § 2101(40) therefore dictates that the THUNDER was a "towing vessel" for the purposes of the licensing requirement of 46 C.F.R. § 15.910. There appears to be no fact dispute that Captain Lequeux, the master of ...

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