In the case of Vane Line Bunkering, Inc. v. Natalie D M/V decided by Judge Eldon Fallon on February 21, 2018, the issue involved whether a moving vessel is at fault when it allides with a stationary object. Judge Fallon, one of the more experienced maritime jurists in the Eastern District of Louisiana, found there were factual determinations which were needed to be made by the jury and therefore denied summary judgment.
There are presumptions and burden-shifting principles that govern the imposition of liability for allisions on navigable waterways. Under one such presumption, known as The Oregon Rule, it is presumed a moving vessel is at fault when it allides with a stationary object. This presumption is named after the case of the same name decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1895. The Oregon Rule states that “presumption derives from the common-sense observation that moving vessels do not usually collide with stationary objects unless the [moving] vessel is mishandled in some way.” It allows the owner of a stationary object hit by a moving vessel to satisfy its initial burden of demonstrating the breach of a duty on the part of the vessel by invoking this rule. “This presumption operates to shift the burden of proof—both the burden of producing evidence and the burden of persuasion—onto the moving ship.”
The moving vessel can then rebut the presumption by proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, (1) it acted with reasonable care or (2) the stationary object was at fault for the allision or (3) the allision was an unavoidable accident.
In this case, the NATALIE D M/V, a moving vessel, allided with an anchor wire of a vessel anchored at a fleet; i.e. the anchor wire being a stationary object. According to the defendants, the anchor cable for the CHESAPEAKE was below the water and not visible to the captain of the NATALIE D. Further, the captain of the NATALIE D claims that he did not know the location of the cable. As a result, the defendants argued the NATALIE D acted reasonably, because it is customary and usual in that area of the river for vessels to navigate between other anchored vessels to reach the fleeting facility. Additionally, they alleged the CHESAPEAKE was an obstruction to navigation because its anchor chain was improperly set and the anchor cable protruded into an area in which other vessels would be navigating. Accordingly, the argument by the defense was Plaintiff was partially at fault for this allision.
In his ruling, Judge Fallon concluded there were contested issues of material fact which preclude a finding whether the NATALIE D was solely at fault and he denied summary judgment.
The entire case can be found here.