Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer LLC

Maritime Update: Court of Appeals Reverses Summary Judgment on Issue of Whether Marine Peril Existed

Biscayne Towing v. M/Y Backstage, No. 14-12176 (11th Cir. June 29, 2015)

Biscayne Towing & Salvage, Inc. (“Biscayne Towing”) sued the M/Y Backstage in rem (“Backstage”) and its owner, Private Marine Ventures, LLC, in personam, for salvage of the Backstage.  A yacht docked in the first slip of Grove Harbor Marina’s Pier One caught fire. Fire department personnel arrived at approximately 6:30 a.m. The igniting yacht and the one in the next slip to the east along the pier were engulfed in flames. The third yacht to the east was burning badly. The fourth yacht to the east, the M/Y Splendour, had fire on its starboard side. The Backstage, the fifth yacht to the east and the yacht at issue in this case, was not on fire but was getting hot on its starboard side.  Biscayne Towing arrived on the scene with a towboat.  An official of the City of Miami Fire Department said they needed to create a firebreak by pulling the Splendour out of its slip.  Biscayne Towing moved M/Y SPLENDOUR out of its slip.  The local fire department eventually extinguished the fires on the three vessels still burning in their slips.  The Backstage never caught fire, but suffered extensive heat-related damage on its starboard side.

Biscayne Towing filed a salvage claim against the Backstage.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Backstage interests on the basis that the Backstage faced no maritime peril.  The district court reasoned that where “the vessel has the situation under control such that there is no ‘reasonable apprehension for her safety in the future if left to her own unaided efforts,’” there is no peril.”  The district court’s basis for concluding that no maritime peril existed was that the principal member of the Backstage’s owner, captain, and the dock master, had arrived as the Splendour was pulling out. They told the firemen that they could move the Backstage because her engines were operable. The district court acknowledges that the firemen refused to let them board the Backstage until the fire was under control and the Splendour was out of the marina.

The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the district court committed two errors.  First, the district court resolved in favor of the Defendants that the Backstage was in a position to be moved before the Splendour blocked its way. Removing the Splendour was to create a firebreak. There is evidence that the Splendour was moving out of its slip when the Backstage’s owner and captain arrived and said they were ready to move the vessel. There is evidence that the Splendour was blocking the Backstage’s way by then, but no evidence that firemen told Biscayne Towing to stop.  Second, there was evidence that the firemen would not allow the Backstage’s owner and captain on the vessel until the firebreak was created and the fires on the first three boats were put out by the late-arriving fireboat.  The Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the district court to determine whether a marine peril existed.

One can only imagine the frustration of the Backstage interests under the circumstances.  The owner was prevented from moving his vessel and then forced to defend a salvage claim.  It will be interesting to see if the district court takes a different view of the evidence at trial.



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