Servicing drilling platforms is big business in the Gulf of Mexico. To transport pipes and other supplies out to the oil platforms ships or large vessels are often used. Unfortunately not all vessels are in “shipshape” as a recent case out of the Eastern District of Louisiana shows.
On May 28, 2013, the RICKY B, a boat operated by D&B Boat Rentals (“D&B”), began taking on water in its engine room while servicing drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. The following day, after several attempts to stop the flooding, the RICKY B contacted Crosby Tugs, L.L.C. (“Crosby”) for assistance. At this point, the RICKY B had lost power and its crew was abandoning ship. Crosby agreed to dispatch a tug to tow the RICKY B to shore. When the tug arrived several hours later, RICKY B was sitting low in the water. The tug, following the owner and operator of D&B’s instructions, attached a tow line and towed the vessel to shallower waters at speeds of no more than five knots without pumping the water in engine room. However, after about 13 minutes into the towing, the RICKY B completely submerged and sunk to a rest on the bed of the Gulf of Mexico.
D&B filed suit against Crosby to recover expenses incurred in the boat sinking, alleging that Crosby negligently towed the RICKY B without pumping the water first, and at too high speeds, causing the boat to sink. After conducting a bench trial, the district court ruled in favor of Crosby. The Court found that D&B presented insufficient evidence to establish that Crosby acted with either negligence or gross negligence. The district court held that the nature of the services provided by Crosby were salvage, not towing; and because the damage ultimately suffered by the D&B was indistinguishable from the purpose of the salvage operation (i.e., to prevent the sinking), a gross negligence standard applied in determining Crosby’s liability instead of ordinary negligence. The standard of ordinary negligence is conduct that deviates from the proverbial “reasonable person,” whereas grossly negligent conduct is that which has fallen so far below the ordinary standard of care that one can expect, to warrant the label of being “gross.” Moreover, in this case, the district court held that even if the court applied an ordinary negligence standard that D&B presented insufficient evidence to prove Crosby’s ordinary negligence. Furthermore, under the Pennsylvania Rule, D&B is required show that the statutory violations of the RICKY B were not the cause of the accident, which they did not. The Pennsylvania Rule creates a rebuttable presumption of causation against an entity involved in a maritime accident if that entity is in violation of a maritime rule or regulation intended to prevent that type of accident. See Pennzoil Producing Co. v. Offshore Express, Inc., 943 F.2d 1465, 1472 (5th Cir. 1991).