Published: December 28, 2015
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
In Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing, L.L.C. and Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, 2015 WL 9257862 (E.D. La. Dec. 18, 2015), a Louisiana federal court reconsidered its prior decision and denied the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans’ motion to dismiss punitive damages claims against it. The case grew out of the accident which occurred when a tug, operated by ABC Marine, towing a deck barge owned by Boh Bros. Construction Co., was transiting the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Aboard the barge was a large crane. Around midnight on August 13, 2014, the mast of the crane struck the Florida Avenue lift bridge, which had not been raised to its highest position. The crane boom then fell atop the tug’s pilothouse, killing tug captain, Michael Collins, and seriously damaging the crane barge.
While the Bridge’s Operator Manual required the bridge to be opened to its fullest extent for each opening, the Court found “several bridge tenders testified that they did not review any operating or policy manuals as part of their bridge tender training.”
The lift bridge also suffered from mechanical problems before the accident, leading bridge tenders to deviate from the Operator’s Manual and not fully open the bridge for each opening. Instead, the bridge tenders were trained to only raise the bridge several feet above the height requested by each passing vessel. On the night of the accident, the bridge tender claimed she raised the bridge four feet higher than that requested by Captain Collins. But this was not high enough.
Why did the Court change its position? Boh Bros., owner of the crane barge, showed the Court video which revealed the Board’s bridge tenders, even after this fatal accident, continued to fail to raise the bridge to its fullest extent. The Court also referenced a federal law, specifically a Coast Guard bridge operation regulation found at 33 C.F.R. § 117.5, which also required the Board to “fully open” the bridge every time (“[e]xcept as otherwise authorized or required by this part, drawbridges must open promptly and fully for the passage of vessels when a request or signal to open is given in accordance with this subpart.”).
The Court concluded:
“Therefore, notwithstanding the fatal tragedy that is the basis of this case, the video footage demonstrates that the Board continues to disregard the mandate of 33 C.F.R. § 117.5. The Court appreciates the Board’s argument that this video footage is inapposite because it was taken on a day when the Bridge was undergoing electrical repairs. However, the Court notes that any conclusions it might draw from this video footage would be based on material facts in dispute. In other words, whether or not this evidence confirms that the Board had in the past and continues to act with reckless conduct and callous disregard for life and property sufficient to justify an award of punitive damages is not an issue that can be determined summarily at this time in view of their arguably continuing practice. Rather, this new evidence, particularly taken together with the genuine issues of material fact discussed in the October 14 Order & Reasons, introduces a new fact issue that must be decided at trial.”
The Court had previously decided that punitive damages were available under the general maritime law in this case, and denied a defense motion to dismiss them as a matter of law.