Judge Ivan Lemelle of the Eastern District of Louisiana re-affirmed the U.S. 5th Circuit’s holding in Amoco Transport Co. v. S/S Mason Lykes, 768 F.2d 659 that the long-standing exclusionary doctrine from Robins Dry Dock v. Flint, 275 U.S. 303, 48 S. Ct. 134 (1927), does not apply when a damaged party shifts some of its own injury to a third party by contract.
On February 28, 2015, the M/V ST. THOMAS, a vessel owned and operated by Marquette Transportation allided with the Grosse Tete Bridge in Iberville Parish. Damage to the bridge necessitated its closure for approximately 80 days for repairs. As a main thoroughfare across the Intracoastal Waterway for the residents of Iberville Parish, the closure of the bridge transformed a short commute or trip to the grocery store into a 90-mile trek. As a result of the bridge closure, the State of Louisiana, as owner of the bridge, entered into a joint venture with Iberville Parish and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to provide an alternate means of transportation via ferry. The State agreed to provide and operate the ferry while Iberville Parish was responsible for obtain, construct, staff and maintain a site for temporary ferry landings on both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway. Iberville Parish agreed to undertake this endeavor and incurred the expenses to do so.
When Marquette filed a limitation proceeding as a result of the allision, the Parish submitted a claim for reimbursement of the expenses incurred in performing its agreement with the State. Marquette, in turn, filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to have the Parish’s claims dismissed under the doctrine established in Robins Dry Dock, which prohibits maritime tort claims for economic damages unaccompanied by physical damage to a proprietary interest. Marquette argued that because the Parish undisputedly did not have any ownership interest in the bridge, it could not recover the expenses incurred in connection with acquiring and maintaining the ferry landing properties.
In its opposition, the Parish, represented by Kean Miller, argued that Amoco acknowledged that the State, who had the proprietary interest in the damage, by agreement, could shift all or some of its economic loss to a third party – here, the Parish – without the Parish losing its right to seek recoupment from the tortfeasor. Basically, Robins Dry Dock was inapplicable. Judge Lemelle agreed with the Parish, denying Marquette’s motion. In his analysis though, Judge Lemelle distinguished the two scenarios addressed in Amoco as the “Amoco Exception” and what he dubbed as the “Amoco Exclusion.” The limited Exception applies only to vessel collisions when there is no privity of contract between the vessels, but a recognized common venture between the damaged vessel and the owner of its cargo. He acknowledged that the 5th Circuit has not endorsed the Amoco Exception beyond the collision context. The second scenario is triggered when a loss that is properly recoverable by the real party in interest has been shifted to a third party by contract. That situation, according to the 5th Circuit, falls outside the scope of Robins Dry Dock because it “is not within the parameters of the evil to be remedied” by Robins Dry Dock.
Here, the economic loss incurred in connection with the ferry operations is a loss that would presumably be recoverable by the State because it arose out of the physical injury to the State-owned bridge. Because the State contracted with the Parish to incur those expenses, Amoco recognizes that the Parish’s claims should be excluded from the proscription in Robins Dry Dock. Though additional evidence would be needed at trial to support the legal validity of the expense shift to the Parish, the Parish was able to successfully avoid being cast out on summary judgment at this stage.