Negligent Allision of Moving Vessel With Stationary Vessel

Plaintiff, a yacht broker and expert fishing vessel operator, planned a weekend fishing trip with friends aboard the 29-foot M/V Tuner.  A tropical storm delayed the fishing trip, and the M/V Tuner remained docked in a marina.  Thereafter, Plaintiff noticed a 43-foot vessel, the M/V Special T, was heading directly towards the stationary M/V Tuner.  The M/V Special T’s operator, Defendant, could not control the boat due to loss of power, and his attempts to restart the engines failed.  He sent out an alarm to notify Plaintiff, who told Defendant not to start the M/V Special T’s engines.  Defendant nonetheless continued his efforts.  Although Defendant successfully restarted the M/V Special T as it came within feet of the M/V Tuner, a water surge from the newly-started engines caused Plaintiff to lose his balance and fall.  Ultimately, he was diagnosed with a fractured calcaneous bone in his right heel and awarded, among other things, $185,000 for pain and suffering.

The Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit, agreed that Defendants were negligent.  Inland Navigation Rule 5 states that a vessel has a duty to “maintain proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”  33 U.S.C. § 2005 (2010).  The pilot of a vessel has a duty to navigate with proper lookout and at a safe speed.  Further, the fault of a moving vessel is presumed when that vessel allides with a stationary object.

Here, the Fourth Circuit determined that Defendant failed to heed Plaintiff’s warnings not to start the M/V Special T’s engines.  Defendant instead attempted to manuever the vessel by putting its starboard engine in reverse, causing the M/V Special T to accelerate directly towards the M/V Tuner.  Even Defendant’s expert witness stated that a moving vessel does not typically collide with a stationary object unless the vessel was mishandled.  As such, the court found that Defendant failed to exercise reasonable care.

Moreover, in affirming the district court’s ruling,  the Fourth Circuit determined that Defendant caused the collision.  Had Defendant not taken the M/V Special T out into a trapical storm, the accident could have been avoided.  Further, Defendant should have heeded Plaintiff’s warnings and stopped his attempts to restart the stalled engines.  See Inland Navigation Rule 8, 33 U.S.C. § 2008(e) (2010) (“if necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion”).

Finally, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a $185,000 pain and suffering award to Plaintiff, a $25,000 loss of consortium award to Plaintiff’s wife, and the application of Louisiana prejudgment interest as opposed to federal maritime interest rates.

Wynne v. Trotter, 2010-CA-0090 (La. App. 4 Cir. 6/30/2010); — So. 3d —-, 2010 WL 2615804