U.S. District Judge Awards Punitive Damages Against Barge Operator in Non-Injury, Property Damage Suit Arising Out of Barge Breakaway — Despite Finding that Barge Operator Did Not Act With Malice or that Its Conduct Was Outrageous or Showed Wanton Indifference to Safety Concerns

U.S. District Judge Gregg Costa of Galveston recently awarded a fishing boat owner punitive damages for damages suffered in an allision caused by a drifting construction barge.  Graham v. PCL Civil Constructors, Inc., C.A. 3:11-CV-00546 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 23, 2013).  The barge was moored to an H-beam pile which had been driven into the water bottom on a bridge construction site near Freeport, TX.  The barge was caused to break away from its mooring during a storm (30 mph sustained winds, with gusts up to 43 mph).  The drifting barge struck plaintiff’s stationary fishing vessel which docked for fuel and ice.  Judge Costa ruled that the barge bareboat charterer/operator (PCL) was negligent in the use of the H-pile due to its sharp edges that created a risk of cutting a mooring line–a risk that would not exist with a typical round piling.  Judge Costa emphasized that the barge owner failed to monitor weather conditions and take appropriate steps to prevent the breakaway in view of the forecasted adverse weather.  He also noted that PCL failed to obtain a required federal permit for the mooring piling.

Relying heavily on the US Supreme Court’s landmark Exxon Shipping punitive damages ruling, Judge Costa acknowledged that PCL did not act with malice or that its conduct was outrageous or showed wanton indifference to safety concerns.  Moreover, Judge Costa expressly stated that the Court did not conclude that PCL had actual knowledge of the extreme danger of risk and that it proceeded with conscious indifference to the safety of others.  The Court noted that PCL’s conduct was not motivated by a decision to place economic gain over reasonable safety measures.  Rather, the Court found that PCL “did not realize or appreciate the high degree of risk involved when a reasonable company in its position would do so.”  Thus, Judge Costa ruled, “PCL’s conduct with regard to inadequate moorings and weather preparations was reckless.”  He then awarded punitive damages that equaled to 65% of the compensatory damages.

Editor’s Note: Our firm was involved for the barge owner who was dismissed prior to trial upon a showing that the bareboat charterer was solely responsible for the H-beam piling and maintained exclusive care, custody and control of the barge at the time of the breakaway.