Fifth Circuit Defines Scope of Vessel Liability Under Oil Pollution Act of 1990

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a decision in USA v. Nature’s Way Marine, LLC et al, addressing the statutory definition of “operating” a vessel for purposes of liability under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). Specifically, OPA establishes that each “responsible party” is liable for the removal costs and damages associated with oil spilled into navigable waters. “Responsible party” in the case of a vessel is defined as “any person owning, operating, or demise chartering the vessel”, but the term “operating” is not defined in OPA.

USA v. Nature’s Way Marine, LLC et al

The case arose out of an oil spill caused by two oil-carrying barges being pushed by a tugboat, colliding with a bridge in the Mississippi River. The tugboat owner did not own the barges, which lacked self-propulsion or navigation of their own. The Coast Guard found that the tugboat owner and the barges owner were both “responsible parties” under OPA. The tugboat owner spent nearly $3 million on cleanup costs, while government entities spent an additional $792,000.00.

Tugboat Owner Filed Claim Under National Pollution Funds Center

The tugboat owner then filed a claim for reimbursement under the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC) claiming its liability should be limited to the tonnage of the tugboat, excluding the tonnage of the two barges. The NPFC denied reimbursement, finding the tugboat owner was also the “operator” of the barges at the time of the spill and therefore its liability was limited to the combined tonnage of tugboat and barges (which exceeded the $3 million already spent).

U.S. Government SueD Tugboat Operator

The U.S. government then sued the tugboat operator, seeking reimbursement of its $792,000.00 in cleanup costs. The case hinged on whether the tugboat owner, as operator of the tugboat, was also “operating” the barges for purposes of liability under OPA. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the government, agreeing that the tugboat owner was “operating” the barges at the time of the spill. The tugboat owner appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

Fifth Circuit Ruling

The Court examined the somewhat ambiguous wording of the statute and found it lacking in defining “operator”. The Court then resorted to examination of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), another environmental law drafted in the same time frame as OPA. The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the definition of “operator” under CERCLA and unanimously determined it is “someone who directs the workings of, manages, or conducts the affairs of a facility”. The Fifth Circuit adopted that analysis for purposes of OPA, concluding that the common sense definition of “operating” included someone who directs, manages, or conducts the affairs of the vessel, i.e. piloting and moving the vessel. Because the tugboat had exclusive navigational control of the barges at the time of the allision, it was “operating” the barges for purposes of liability under OPA.

The Court affirmed summary judgment that the tugboat owner’s liability was measured by the combined tonnage of the tugboat and barges.