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Continental Insurance Co. v. L&L Marine Transportation, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

August 9, 2017




         Before the Court is River Ventures' motion for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the motion is DENIED.


         The incident giving rise to this pending lawsuit began on December 29, 2013 on the Mississippi River. On that evening, the M/V ANGELA RAE, owned by C.J.L., Inc. and operated by L&L Marine Transportation, Inc., was traveling southbound with the FSP 101 barge. The M/V FREEDOM (owned and operated by River Ventures) and the M/V MISS DOROTHY were traveling in the same direction; both vessels attached a line to the FSP 101 barge. The FREEDOM was on the port side of the barge and the MISS DOROTHY was on the starboard side, with the ANGELA RAE face-up and in control, at least to some extent, of the barge.

         During the voyage, Captain Colomb, captain of the MISS DOROTHY, informed the ANGELA RAE that the MISS DOROTHY needed to change fuel filters. However, that change did not happen immediately. Instead, approximately 30 minutes prior to reaching the Sunshine Bridge, Captain Colomb ordered his deckhands, Joshua Deranger and Matt Lynch, to change the fuel filters. In order to complete the task, the deckhands shut down the MISS DOROTHY's starboard engine. This shutdown allegedly caused a drag on the flotilla. The captain on the ANGELA RAE attempted to inform the MISS DOROTHY of the drag it was causing, and he allegedly received a response that the MISS DOROTHY would give “more straight rudder.” When the flotilla attempted to pass under the Sunshine Bridge, however, the MISS DOROTHY allided with bridge; the vessel was deemed a total loss.

         Following the incident, multiple lawsuits were filed and consolidated into this civil proceeding pending before this Court. One of the actions that resulted is River Ventures, L.L.C.'s limitation of liability action. River Ventures was the owner and operator of the FREEDOM; several parties have filed claims against River Ventures as part of the limitation proceeding. River Ventures now moves the Court to grant summary judgment in its favor, dismissing all claims against it as it pertains to the limitation proceeding.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 instructs that summary judgment is proper if the record discloses no genuine dispute as to any material fact such that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. No genuine dispute of fact exists if the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). A genuine dispute of fact exists only "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The Court emphasizes that the mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. See id. Therefore, "[i]f the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, " summary judgment is appropriate. Id. at 249-50 (citations omitted). Summary judgment is also proper if the party opposing the motion fails to establish an essential element of his case. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). In this regard, the non-moving party must do more than simply deny the allegations raised by the moving party. See Donaghey v. Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., 974 F.2d 646, 649 (5th Cir. 1992). Rather, he must come forward with competent evidence, such as affidavits or depositions, to buttress his claim. Id. Hearsay evidence and unsworn documents that cannot be presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence at trial do not qualify as competent opposing evidence. Martin v. John W. Stone Oil Distrib., Inc., 819 F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. 1987); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). Finally, in evaluating the summary judgment motion, the Court must read the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.


         “When damages involve a tow or an entire flotilla, courts employ the ‘dominant mind' doctrine to ‘place liability on the tug and absolve the tow from liability.'” N.M. Paterson & Sons, Ltd. v. M/V Ethel E., No. 01-7325, 2004 WL 170326, at *3 (N.D.Ill. Jan. 14, 2004) (quoting In re TT Boat Corp., No. 98-494, 1999 WL 123810, at *3 (E.D. La. Mar. 3, 1999)). “The ‘dominant mind' doctrine provides that the vessel that is liable is the vessel whose people are actually in control of the operation.” Id. (citing Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Progress Marine Inc., No. 77-463, 1980 A.M.C. 1637 (E.D. La. Aug. 24, 1979), aff'd, 632 F.2d 893 (5th Cir. 1980)). A tug is considered the “dominant mind” when it provides the motive power. See id. “A tug that tows the tow into collision is presumed to be at fault, especially if that collision is with a stationary object.” N.M. Patterson, 2004 WL 170326, at *3 (citing Ryan Walsh Stevedoring Co. v. James Marine Serv., Inc., 557 F.Supp. 457, 461 (E.D. La. 1983)). “If the tug is the ‘dominant mind, ' the tug is responsible for knowledge of navigational conditions, including knowledge of channels, depth of water, obstructions, pipelines and other dangers to her tow.” Id.

         “When a helper tug merely furnishes power in obedience to orders from the primary tug without any negligence on its part, it should be exonerated from all liability for damages to the tow.” Complaint of Patton-Tully Transp. Co., No. 79-2315, 1982 WL 195694, 1983 A.M.C. 1288, 1299 (E.D. La. Sept. 24, 1982) (emphasis added); see also Moran Towing & Transp. Co. v. Empresa Hondurena De V., 194 F.2d 629 (5th Cir. 1952). However, a tug is not always immune from liability when it is not the “dominant mind.” Patton-Tully, 193 A.M.C. at 1299-1300. “A helper tug will be deemed at fault when it fails to comply with the lead tug's orders.” Id. at 1300 (citing Panama Canal Co. v. Sociedad de Transportes Maritimos, 272 F.2d 726 (5th Cir. 1959). Another court has expounded on Patton-Tully stating:

As Patton-Tully makes clear, however, as assist vessel must be free of negligence to be absolved from liability. If the non-dominant party ‘breached a duty or acted in a negligent manner that contributed to the damages … [it] may be held partially or solely liable.'

         Matter of the Complaint of Ingram Barge Co., No 13-3453, 2016 WL 1450027, at * 9 (N.D.Ill. Apr. 13, 2016) (alterations in original)(internal citations omitted).

         The case history makes clear that an assist tug does not escape liability under the “dominant mind” doctrine when the assist tug is found negligent in some manner. Therefore, the question before this Court is whether the FREEDOM was negligent in any manner, such that she does not escape liability under the “dominant mind” theory.



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