Court Affirms $19M Award to Boat Passengers
Company at Fault in Allision
Construction Company, Inc. v. Brock, 2006 WL 964105 (11th Cir. Apr.
Bowling, 3L, University of Mississippi School of Law
The United States
Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has affirmed an award of more
than $19 million in damages to passengers of a recreational boat that
allided with a stationary barge.1
At the time of the accident at issue in this case, Superior Construction
Company (Superior) was the general contractor for the Florida Department
of Transportations expansion of the Blanding Boulevard Bridge
over the Cedar River in Jacksonville, Florida. Superior had chartered
the barge and a tugboat to assist in the project. During the project,
the company frequently stationed the barge and the tug so that recreational
boaters could safely pass under the bridge. However, on December 29,
2001, the company tied the barge and the tug so that they blocked a
large portion of the waterway commonly used by recreational boaters
to pass under the bridge. In addition, employees positioned the tug
perpendicular to the barge, further hindering passage.
The barge is painted
completely black, as are the hull and superstructure of the tug, making
it difficult to see the vessels at night. The barge and tug had a total
of twelve lights and on the night of the collision only three of ten
lights on the barge, and only one of two lights on the tug, were operating.
All of the lights were in poor condition.
When Charles Brock, the driver of the recreational boat, approached
the bridge that night, he slowed the boats speed and turned to
pass through one of the three spans used by recreational boaters. Neither
he nor his eleven passengers saw the barge until it was too late to
avoid a crash. As a result of the allision, he and his passengers suffered
Superior brought an admiralty action in federal district court seeking
to limit its liability for the allision under the Limitation of Liability
Act.2 Brock and his passengers counterclaimed. The
district court found that Superior was not entitled to limit its liability
and that Superior, the barge, and the tug were liable for the injuries.
Superior appealed the decision, contending that the barge had not obstructed
traffic and that the company had overcome the presumption that they
were at fault. In addition, the company argued that the court should
have assigned a percentage of fault to Brock, since a blood test taken
after the accident indicated that his blood alcohol level exceeded the
legal limit under federal and state law.
of Appeals Analysis
In deciding the appeal, the court reviewed the district courts
application of two rules that apply when a moving vessel allides with
a stationary vessel. The first rule, called the Oregon Rule, says that
the burden of proof is initially on the moving vessel to prove that
the allision was the stationary vessels fault and that the moving
vessel acted with reasonable care or that the accident was unavoidable.3
However, the Pennsylvania Rule shifts the burden to the stationary vessel
if it violates a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions.4
The stationary vessel must then prove that its statutory violation could
not have been a cause of the accident. In cases where both vessels involved
in the allision are operating in violation of statutes designed to prevent
accidents, the Pennsylvania Rule requires the court to find that both
parties contributed to the accident, unless it finds that either party
could not have been at fault.
The court found that Superior had violated a federal statute stating
that it is unlawful to tie up or anchor vessels in a way that would
obstruct other vessels from passing through a channel.5 The court listed four reasons that Superior had violated this statute.
First, the barge blocked 24 percent of the entire passageway. Second,
the barge was in an unorthodox location, obstructing 68
percent of the passage most commonly used by recreational boaters. Third,
the vessels were not lit adequately. Finally, the barge and the tug
were virtually invisible from the water.
In light of these findings, the appeals court agreed with the district
courts opinion that Superior did violate a federal statute, and
the presumption of fault was on the company. The court also decided
that Superior failed to show that its violation of the federal statute
could not have been the cause of the collision.
Since Brock was also in violation of state and federal statutes as a
result of his legal intoxication, the district court applied the Pennsylvania
Rule against him. The appeals court affirmed the district courts
finding that, although Brock did violate the statutes, he met his burden
of showing that his intoxication could not have been a cause of the
collision. The court listed four reasons why Brock overcame the presumption
of liability. First, the court found that Brocks intoxication
did not have a significant effect on his handling of the boat. Second,
Brock slowed the boat from 34 miles per hour to 22 miles per hour when
approaching the bridge. Third, Brock had aimed the boat so that it would
have safely passed under the bridge if the barge had not been in the
way. Fourth, other passengers who were not intoxicated and possessed
an unobstructed view of the bridge did not see the barge until it was
impossible to avoid the collision.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the district courts opinion that
the only cause of the accident could have been Superiors dangerous
placement and improper lighting of the barge. Additionally, the court
noted that the companys failure to warn the Coast Guard or recreational
boaters about the placement of the barge contributed to the accident.
The court also affirmed the district courts finding that Brocks
intoxication could not have been a cause of the collision.
Superior also appealed the amount of damages awarded to two of the passengers,
saying that the amounts were so excessive that they shocked the
conscience. The court found that the district court did not err
in awarding the amounts, due to the circumstances surrounding their
1. Allision is a term used in maritime law
to denote the sudden impact of a vessel with a stationary object
such as an anchored vessel or a pier. Blacks Law Dictionary
28 (Bryan A. Garner ed., pocket ed., West 1996).
2. 46 U.S.C. App. §§ 183-89.
3. The Oregon, 158 U.S. 186 (1895).
4. The Pennsylvania, 86 U.S. 125 (1873).
5. 33 U.S.C. § 409.