Ventker Henderson Team Prevail on Motion for Summary Judgment on Behalf of Tugboat Owner Whose Mate Was Injured When Mooring Caisson Collapsed Under Him
It’s not every day an 80-ton concrete caisson used to moor barge lines suddenly collapses into the water out from under you—but that was the fate of a tugboat mate at a grain terminal in Chesapeake, Virginia in 2014. The mate brought several claims in state court against Perdue, the terminal operator, for negligence in failing to maintain the caisson, and also a claim against his employer, a local tugboat company. The mate’s claim against his employer essentially argued the tug company was liable as an agent of the terminal operator—he did not allege the tugboat company was negligent in tug operations or supervision. VH attorneys defended the tugboat company and filed an action under the Limitation of Shipowners Liability Act, which brought the matter into federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia. Perdue filed crossclaims against our client for contribution, indemnity under the towage agreement, and breach of the implied warranty of workmanlike service. In so doing, Perdue argued the tugboat company was negligent in its vessel operations, causing the mate’s injuries, and the tugboat company should indemnify Perdue if Perdue were liable to the mate. At mediation, VH attorneys negotiated a favorable settlement with the deckhand, and then filed for summary judgment on Perdue’s crossclaims.
In a full 18-page opinion, the magistrate judge agreed with our arguments for the tugboat company. The judge considered the Supreme Court’s opinion in McDermott, Inc. v. AmClyde, 511 U.S. 202, 207-09 (1994), which established the proportionate fault rule in maritime law, presumes a settling tortfeasor has assumed its proportionate share of fault with the settlement, and bars later contribution claims by joint tortfeasors. Oddly, however, in the Fourth Circuit even after AmClyde, there exists a small window for a joint tortfeasor to seek indemnity against a settling tortfeasor for amounts it paid to the plaintiff in strict liability due to the settling tortfeasor’s actual fault. See Boykin v. China Steel Corp., 73 F.3d 539 (4th Cir. 1996). However, as Ms. Henderson argued at the hearing and as the District Court ultimately agreed, Perdue could not utilize the Boykin exception because if Perdue were liable to the deckhand, it would be solely for Perdue’s own negligence and not for any actions of the tug company. As we argued, indemnity under maritime law requires some wrongdoing for which another party is held liable, typically under a no-fault regime such as unseaworthiness or maintenance and cure. The opinion also noted that the duties Perdue alleged the tugboat company breached (such as failure to have the mate wear a life vest) were owed to the mate, and the mate had already released all claims against the tugboat company. The District Judge’s Order adopted the magistrate judge’s full opinion and dismissed the tugboat company. The opinion is pending publication in American Maritime Cases. Without the benefit of a vessel owner seeking limitation of liability in federal court, it seems likely the matter will go back to state court. Through the efforts of VH lawyers, however, the tugboat operator will not be dragged into a trial over a terminal’s poorly-maintained mooring caisson.