Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Admiralty & Maritime Law
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CARCO sub-chartered an oil tanker from tanker operator Star, which had chartered it from Frescati. During the tanker’s journey, an abandoned ship anchor punctured the tanker’s hull, causing 264,000 gallons of heavy crude oil to spill into the Delaware River. The 1990 Oil Pollution Act, 33 U.S.C. 2702(a), required Frescati, the vessel’s owner, to cover the cleanup costs. Frescati’s liability was limited to $45 million. The federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund reimbursed Frescati for an additional $88 million in cleanup costs.Frescati and the government sued, claiming that CARCO had breached a clause in the subcharter agreement that obligated CARCO to select a berth that would allow the vessel to come and go “always safely afloat,” and that obligation amounted to a warranty regarding the safety of the selected berth. Finding that Frescati was an implied third-party beneficiary of the safe-berth clause, the Third Circuit held that the clause embodied an express warranty of safety.The Supreme Court affirmed. The safe-berth clause's unqualified plain language establishes an absolute warranty of safety. That the clause does not expressly invoke the term “warranty” does not alter the charterer’s duty, which is not subject to qualifications or conditions. Under contract law, an obligor is strictly liable for a breach of contract, regardless of fault or diligence. While parties are free to contract for limitations on liability, these parties did not. A limitation on the charterer’s liability for losses due to “perils of the seas,” does not apply nor does a clause requiring Star to obtain oil-pollution insurance relieve CARCO of liability. View "CITGO Asphalt Refining Co. v. Frescati Shipping Co." on Justia Law

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Batterton was working on a Dutra vessel when a hatch blew open and injured his hand. Batterton sued Dutra, asserting various claims, including unseaworthiness, and seeking general and punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of Dutra’s motion to dismiss the claim for punitive damages: The Supreme Court reversed. A plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. Precedent establishes that the Court “should look primarily to . . . legislative enactments for policy guidance” when exercising its inherent common-law authority over maritime and admiralty cases. Overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act) codified the rights of injured mariners by incorporating the rights provided to railway workers under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA); FELA damages were strictly compensatory. The Court noted that unseaworthiness in its current strict-liability form is the Court’s own invention, coming after enactment of the Jones Act. A claim of unseaworthiness is a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim. It would exceed the objectives of pursuing policies found in congressional enactments and promoting uniformity between maritime statutory law and maritime common law to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those provided by Congress in similar areas. Allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would also create bizarre disparities in the law and would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen. View "Dutra Group v. Batterton" on Justia Law

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Manufacturers produced equipment for three Navy ships. The equipment required asbestos insulation or asbestos parts to function as intended, but the manufacturers did not always incorporate the asbestos into their products, so the Navy later added the asbestos. Two Navy veterans, exposed to asbestos on the ships, developed cancer. They sued the manufacturers. The manufacturers argued that they should not be liable for harms caused by later-added third-party parts.The Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit in rejecting summary judgment for the manufacturers. The Court adopted a rule between the “foreseeability” approach and the “bare-metal defense,” that is "especially appropriate in the context of maritime law, which has always recognized a ‘special solicitude for the welfare’ of sailors." Requiring a warning in these circumstances will not impose a significant burden on manufacturers, who already have a duty to warn of the dangers of their own products. A manufacturer must provide a warning only when it knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses and has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger. The rule applies only if the manufacturer directs that the part be incorporated; the manufacturer makes the product with a part that the manufacturer knows will require replacement with a similar part; or a product would be useless without the part. View "Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries" on Justia Law

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While inspecting a commercial fishing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal agent found that the catch contained undersized red grouper, in violation of conservation regulations, and instructed the captain, Yates, to keep the undersized fish segregated from the rest of the catch until the ship returned to port. After the officer departed, Yates told the crew to throw the undersized fish overboard. Yates was convicted of destroying, concealing, and covering up undersized fish to impede a federal investigation under 18 U. S. C. 519, which applies when a person “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” a federal investigation. Yates argued that section 1519 originated in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, to protect investors, and that its reference to “tangible object” includes objects used to store information, such as computer hard drives. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that “tangible object” refers to one used to record or preserve information. Section 1519’s position within Title 18, Chapter 73 and its title, “Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy,” signal that it was not intended to serve as a cross-the-board ban on the destruction of physical evidence. The words immediately surrounding “tangible object,” “falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record [or] document,” also indicate the contextual meaning of that term. Even if traditional tools of statutory construction leave any doubt about the meaning of the term, it would be appropriate to invoke the rule of lenity. View "Yates v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Port of Los Angeles is run by a Board of Harbor Commissioners under a municipal ordinance (the tariff) and leases terminal facilities to operators that load and unload ships. Federally-licensed short-haul drayage trucks move cargo in and out of the Port. In response to concerns over proposed port expansion, the Board implemented a Clean Truck Program that involved a standard “concession agreement,” governing the relationship between the Port and drayage companies. It required a placard on each truck including a phone number and submission a plan listing off-street parking locations. Other requirements relate to financial capacity, truck maintenance, and drivers. The Board amended the tariff to make it a misdemeanor for a terminal operator to grant access to an unregistered drayage truck. An association of drayage companies sued, claiming that the requirements are expressly preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA), 49 U.S.C. 4501(c)(1), and that even if the requirements are valid, the Port may not enforce them by withdrawing a right to operate at the Port. The district court ruled in favor of the Port. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding only the driver-employment provision preempted. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed in part. The FAAAA expressly preempts the placard and parking requirements, which relate to a motor carrier’s price, route, or service with respect to transporting property and “hav[e] the force and effect of law.” The Port exercised classic regulatory authority in forcing terminal operators and, therefore, trucking companies, to alter their conduct by implementing a criminal prohibition punishable by imprisonment. The Port’s proprietary intentions do not control. The Court declined to determine, in a “pre-enforcement posture” whether precedent limits the way the Port can en¬force the financial-capacity and truck-maintenance requirements. View "Am. Trucking Ass'ns., Inc. v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law

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Lozman’s floating home was a plywood structure with empty bilge space underneath to keep it afloat. He had it towed several times before deciding on a marina owned by the city of Riviera Beach. After various disputes and unsuccessful efforts to evict him from the marina, the city brought an admiralty lawsuit in rem against the home, seeking a lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass. The district court found the floating home to be a “vessel” under the Rules of Construction Act, which defines a “vessel” as including “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water,” 1 U. S. C. 3; concluded that admiralty jurisdiction was proper; and awarded fees and damages. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, noting that the home was “capable” of movement over water despite subjective intent to remain moored indefinitely. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the case was not moot, although the home has been destroyed. Lozman’s floating home is not a “vessel.” The definition of “transportation” must be applied in a practical way; a structure does not fall within its scope unless a reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water. But for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water. It had no steering mechanism, had an unraked hull and rectangular bottom 10 inches below water, and had no capacity to generate or store electricity. It lacked self-propulsion, unlike an ordinary houseboat. The Court considered only objective evidence to craft a “workable and consistent” definition that “should offer guidance in a significant number of borderline cases.” View "Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach" on Justia Law