Presumptions in General Maritime Law

The General Maritime Law in the United States has evolved, not from a codified body of laws or rules, but from a case by case analysis by the courts of maritime related casualties and disputes predating the founding of our Union.  Over the years the courts have created several presumptions of fault and/or causation which have the effect of shifting the burden of proof from the aggrieved party to the offending party.

For instance, in 1873 the United States Supreme Court in the case The Steamship Pennsylvania, gave birth to the rule of the same name (the Pennsylvania Rule), and held that the violator of a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions has the burden of proving not only that its transgressions were not a contributing cause of the alision, but that they could not have been a cause.  This applies not only to vessels whose masters may violate the rules of the road, but also to owners and operators of stationary structures which must operate in conformity with federal regulations (for instance drawbridges, which operate in accord with state or federal regulations, structures that must be marked, etc.).

For the rule to be applied, there must be (1) proof by a preponderance of evidence of violation of a statute or regulation that imposes a mandatory duty; (2) the statute or regulation must involve marine safety or navigation; and (3) the injury suffered must be of a nature that the statute or regulation intended to prevent.  The rule is commonly applied to violations of the navigational rules, but it has also come into play with respect to a great many other marine safety statutes and regulations.

The burden of proof under the Pennsylvania Rule is difficult but not impossible to carry.  In order to rebut the presumption, a number of tactics may be employed.  First, the circumstances of the collision may show that the statutory violation was irrelevant in that the casualty would have occurred anyway.  For instance, a violator of a navigational statute may not be held liable under the Pennsylvania Rule if the other party to the accident is found to be solely responsible.  Second, the offending vessel may show that the fault was incurred as an error in extremis, where the vessel, through no fault of her own, was placed in a situation where the collision was imminent, and the fault was an emergency action to avoid it.  Third, the most effective method to rebut the presumption is to demonstrate that the violation could not have been the proximate cause of the collision.  In most cases, however, the vessel presumed to be at fault will fail to carry the burden of exoneration.  See, Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law. 4th Ed. 2001.

In 1895 the United States Supreme Court decided The Oregon case, involving a steamship, THE OREGON, which had hit an anchored ship.  The court found that when a moving vessel collides with a stationary object, the moving vessel is presumed to have been at fault.  Thus arose The Oregon Rule.  The offending vessel then has the burden of proving that the collision was not its fault.  The presumption may be rebutted by the defense of the inevitable accident.

Earlier in 1865, the United States Supreme Court introduced the Louisiana Rule, taken from a case involving the steamship THE LOUISIANA.  The court noted that “during the Southern Rebellion” THE LOUISIANA, a 275 foot steamer “loaded with sick and wounded soldiers from our army in the South,” arrived at Hampton Roads and tied off to a wharf that was one third its size.   Because it could not be tied off along its full length, the tide ultimately tore THE LOUISIANA from its moorings, it drifted and hit another vessel, resulting in damage.  The court found that the drifting vessel will be presumed to be at fault and to escape liability it has the burden of affirmatively proving that the drifting was the result of inevitable accident, or of a force majeure or Act of God, which human skill and precaution could not have prevented.

Although more than a century has passed since they were conceived, all of these doctrines are still in play and are regularly employed in maritime litigation.  While they shift the burden of proof to the offending vessel, the damaged party should always conduct the appropriate investigation, accumulate the necessary evidence and identify those important witnesses and be prepared to prove its case.