Role Reversal: Who Bears Burden of Proof When Vessel Owner is Sued for Sinking Its Own Barge?

Most of the time, when a vessel sinks, any lawsuits are filed by the vessel’s owner against whoever had control of the vessel at the time of the sinking. In Terral River Serv. v. SCF Marine, Inc. recently considered by the Fifth Circuit, the opposite was the case. Faced with this unique procedural situation, the Court was forced to decide how to apply traditional rules regarding burden of proof in a case with where the usual roles were reversed.

Terral River Serv. v. SCF Marine, Inc. – Background

SCF was the barge owner in Terral River Serv. v. SCF Marine, Inc., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 37037 (5th Cir. Dec. 15, 2021). SCF handed its barge off to Terral, who manages a loading facility on the Mississippi River. SCF hired Terral to load the barge with a cargo of rice. SCF had inspected the barge less than a week before sending it to Terral, and found no problems with its structural integrity. Terral also inspected the barge after it arrived at Terral, without identifying any problems.

Roughly four days after the barge arrived at Terral, the barge began to sink while it was being loaded with rice.

Surveyors raised the barge and found that a foot-long fracture along one of the barge’s void tanks caused it to sink. More alarmingly, the surveyors found what appeared to be green “witness marks” along the fracture—which would indicate that someone, somewhere, had previously seen the fracture and marked it with green paint.

Normally, in a situation such as this, the barge owner (SCF) might sue the barge facility (Terral), ostensibly for negligently sinking its barge. The Fifth Circuit described this as the “paradigmatic” situation in which the vessel owner is suing for damage to its own property. In that situation, the case law is clear that the vessel owner would bear the burden of proof to show that the barge facility was negligent.

But this situation was unique. Instead of SCF suing Terral, Terral instead sued SCF—alleging that SCF delivered an unseaworthy barge to Terral. Terral sought to recover expenses incurred after the barge sank, as well as to secure its contractual indemnity.

Terral argued that this case involved a “bailment”—which is when a vessel owner deposits that vessel with someone else (called a “bailee”) and charges that bailee with the duty of protecting the property. Terral argued that in a bailment situation, the property owner bears the initial burden of proving that he delivered the property to the “bailee” in good condition. Terral argued that the witness marks next to the hull fracture proved that SCF did not deliver the barge in good condition. Thus, SCF was responsible for the sinking, and owed damages to Terral.

The Fifth Circuit’s ruling

The Fifth Circuit was not convinced. The court noted that Terral relied on the burden of proof in cases where the property owner sues the bailee—not the other way around. The Court observed that if SCF had sued Terral, then Terral’s argument regarding burden of proof would be correct. But because Terral (the bailee) had sued SCF (the owner), Terral could not escape the general rule that the plaintiff bears the burden of proof.

The Court went on to hold that Terral could not meet its burden of proof. After striking Terral’s expert witnesses, the only remaining expert testimony came from SCF. SCF’s expert opined that the green paint next to the fracture was not a witness mark, but rather paint transfer from a minor collision. Thus, Terral could not prove that SCF had prior notice of the fracture. Without being able to prove that SCF had prior notice of the fracture, Terral simply could not meet its burden of proof. Thus, its claims were dismissed.

Case Re-affirms Plaintiff Generally Must Bear the Burden of Proof

This case re-affirms the general rule in law that a plaintiff generally must bear the burden of proof in a case—notwithstanding various jurisprudential carveouts that allocate the burden differently in specific situations. Thus, litigants must be sure to not blindly assume that a party in a certain role will always bear the burden of proof in a certain type of lawsuit. Rather, they must carefully examine which party is making a claim, and how the burden of proof would impact that claim.