5th Circuit: Louisiana Statutes, not Admiralty Law, Govern Actions Against River Boat Pilots

By Jim Sams | December 6, 2023

As maritime accidents go, the collision between the M/V Strandja and the M/V Kieffer E. Bailey on the Mississippi River was hardly a catastrophe. A jury determined that damages amounted to only $114,000.

But the accident did provide an opportunity for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to clarify the standard of evidence necessary to prove a negligence award against a river boat pilot on Louisiana waters.

An appellate panel reversed a jury verdict against the pilot of the Strandja because the District Court had instructed jurors to use the preponderance of evidence standard used in general maritime law instead of the clear and convincing evidence standard mandated by Louisiana statutes.

The unsigned opinion cited amicus briefs filed by groups representing river boat pilots and concluded that “the limitation of pilots’ liability serves as an essential cog in Louisiana’s comprehensive pilotage regulatory system.”

The Strandja is a 186-foot-long bulk carrier registered in Malta, according to Vesslfinder.com. Under Louisiana law, foreign vessels must use a state-commissioned pilot to navigate on the Mississippi River.

Capt. Robert Johnson was assigned to pilot the Stradja as it prepared to embark. He ordered the port anchor to be lifted, which caused the vessel — which was still anchored on the starboard side — to swing to the right toward the middle of the river.

The movement placed the Strandja directly into the path of the Kieffer Bailey, a tugboat that was pushing six loaded barges down river. Johnson and the Bailey’s pilot both tried to avert a collision, but one of the barges under tow struck the Strandja’s bulbous bow, a protrusion that extends below the waterline on the front of the vessel. The barge was also damaged.

The owner of the Bailey, Marquette Transportation Co. Gulf-Inland, filed a lawsuit against Johnson and the owner of the Strandja, Balkan Navigation in federal court. A jury for the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana determined that Balkan and Johnson were each 50% responsible for the damage to the barge and that Marquette was not liable. The jury awarded Marquette $114,000 in damages.

Johnson and Balkan appealed, raising multiple issues. Their argument that the District Court judge had incorrectly instructed the jury to use the standard of evidence for general maritime law instead of Louisiana’s more strict standards for actions against river boat pilots proved most persuasive.

The Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association, the Board of River Port Pilots Commissioners for the Port of New Orleans and the New Orleans and Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots’ Association each filed briefs in the case.

The Crescent River group pointed out in its brief that under federal law, pilots of vessels that traverse the bays, rivers, harbors, and ports of the United States are regulated by the individual states. Louisiana law requires that legal actions alleging negligence by state-commissioned pilots must provide clear and convincing evidence to prove their case.

The brief said the trial court did use a portion of Louisiana state law; the jury was instructed that it cannot award damages unless it finds the pilot’s actions were grossly negligent or willful. But the judge failed to instruct the jury on the correct standard of evidence.

“This ‘splitting’ and inconsistent application of the same Louisiana statute evidences the trial court’s confusion and screams for this court to correct it,” the brief says.

The 5th District panel did just that. It reversed the District Court’s ruling and ordered a new trial.

“To do otherwise could chill commerce on the Mississippi River and, by extension, throughout the American river systems between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains,” the opinion says.

Top photo courtesy of Vesselfinder.com

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