Admiralty - Robert S. Glenn, Jr., Colin A. Mcrae, and Jessica L. Mcclellan

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
Publication year2004
CitationVol. 55 No. 4

Admiraltyby Robert S. Glenn, Jr.*

Colin A. McRae** ***and Jessica L. McClellan***

I. Introduction

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals handed down ten opinions distinctly concerning admiralty issues during the 2003 calendar year. The topics covered in these cases varied from the traditional maritime issues of allision, cargo, contribution, and admiralty jurisdiction, to the less common maritime fields of criminal law and state sovereign immunity. With ten admiralty opinions in 2003, the Eleventh Circuit has maintained its status as one of the busiest admiralty circuits.

II. Allision

In Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co. v. Weeks Marine Construction Co.,1 the Eleventh Circuit was asked to determine when a stationary vessel involved in an allision is considered a "moored" vessel and when it is an "anchored" vessel in order to identify the applicable set of safety regulations.2 Sunderland Marine addressed the allision of two vessels during a heavy fog in the Florida Keys. A shrimp boat was headed out to sea for a fishing trip when it set an incorrect course that took it outside the Edmont Key Channel. Unfortunately, the appellant, Weeks Marine Construction Company ("Weeks Marine"), had tied one of its barges to a mooring buoy in the same area where Weeks Marine was performing dredging work. The shrimp boat allided with Weeks Marine's unlit barge, causing the shrimp boat to sink. The District Court for the Middle District of Florida found both parties negligent and apportioned the damages accordingly. Weeks Marine appealed the district court's finding that its stationary barge was partially at fault in the allision.3

The central issue on appeal was whether the unlit barge was moored or anchored for the purpose of determining which navigational rules applied at the time of the allision.4 The court of appeals went to great lengths to determine the proper characterization of the barge at the time of the allision because "[t]he safety requirements for an anchored vessel . . . are generally higher, for its presence is in unexpected places."5 The court initially resorted to the use of dictionary definitions by noting that "[t]he traditional distinguishing factor of a moored vessel versus an anchored vessel has been that the former is moored to a permanent object such as a dock or a pier while the anchored vessel is anchored in open water."6 The difficulty in determining whether the vessel was moored or anchored in this case lay in the fact that the vessel had been made fast to a mooring buoy using its mooring lines, while the mooring buoy was anchored to the ocean bottom.7 Appellant argued that its barge should be considered a moored vessel because it had been secured to a mooring buoy via mooring lines.8 The court responded by stating that the barge "was not connected to a permanent location, such as a dock or a pier, but was located in open water, similar to a traditionally anchored vessel."9 The court ultimately relied on a United States Coast Guard clarification of this debatable question: "'The interpretive rules are added to insure that the term vessels at anchor in Rule 30 of the COLREGS and the Inland Rules includes vessels moored to a mooring buoy.'"10

After determining that the Weeks Marine barge had been a "vessel at anchor" at the time of the allision, the Eleventh Circuit examined the safety regulations that apply to such a vessel.11 The court noted that the Weeks Marine barge was violating elevated lighting, sound, and navigational obstruction rules at the time of the allision.12 The opinion states the general rule that the presumption of fault for an allision lies with the moving vessel, which in this case was the shrimp boat.13 However, the burden of proof shifts to the stationary vessel when the stationary vessel is in violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent accidents.14 Weeks Marine failed to meet its burden under the Pennsylvania rule requiring proof that the navigation rule violations by the barge did not contribute in any way to the allision, and thus, the court ruled that the district court was correct in finding Weeks Marine partially at fault for the allision.15 As a final note, the court of appeals awarded pre-judgment interest and made the pronouncement that "[t]he rate of pre-judgment interest that should be awarded is the prime rate during the relevant period."16

III. STATE SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

The central issue in Vierling v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc.17 was the right of a state port authority to assert Eleventh Amendment immunity.18 Plaintiff John Vierling was a would-be passenger on the M/V CENTURY, a cruise ship owned by Celebrity Cruises, Inc. ("Celebrity"). The M/V CENTURY was secured to a Port Everglades, Florida pier that was owned and operated by the Port Everglades Port Authority (the "Port Authority"), a department of Broward County, Florida. The Port Authority had an arrangement with Celebrity to provide passenger loading services to Celebrity's cruise ships on a per-passenger fee basis. Pursuant to this agreement, a Port Authority employee would position a bridge from the pier in such a way that a gangway would be extended onto the ship to allow for the embarkation of Celebrity passengers. On the morning of September 21, 1996, the M/V CENTURY experienced inclement weather during the passenger loading process, with wind gusts up to fifteen to twenty knots. As plaintiff traversed the bridge and gangway, a sudden gust of wind pushed the ship away from the dock, causing the gangway to pull away from the ship. Plaintiff fell from the gangway, slammed into the side of the ship, and fell approximately forty-five feet into the water below.19

Plaintiff Vierling filed suit against both Celebrity and the Port Authority to recover damages for the injuries he sustained in the fall. Celebrity then cross-claimed against the Port Authority, seeking indemnification for damages if Celebrity had to pay Vierling. Celebrity's indemnity action sounded in both negligence, for failure to exercise due care during loading, and in contract, for breach of the Port Authority's implied warranty of workmanlike performance. The Port Authority responded with a motion to dismiss both the complaint and the cross-claim on the basis of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. The district court denied the Port Authority's motions to dismiss on sovereign immunity grounds, and the Port Authority appealed.20

The court of appeals was required to determine whether the Port Everglades Port Authority was a state agency or instrumentality which could invoke sovereign immunity.21 The court focused on three factors in deciding the question: "(1) how state law defines the entity; (2) what degree of control the state maintains over the entity; and (3) from where the entity derives its funds and who is responsible for satisfying the judgments against the entity."22 First, the court noted that Florida law treats the Port Everglades Port Authority as an entity of the county and not of the state.23 Second, the court determined that the State of Florida had no control over the operation of the Port Everglades facilities because Florida statutory law provides that the county, as the owner of the Port Authority facility, has the authority to operate and manage the facility and to charge fees for its use.24 Third, the court stated that the Port Authority is a self-sufficient enterprise that runs its operations on the revenues it generates with no financial support from the state.25 Based on these three findings, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling that the Port Everglades Port Authority is not an arm of the state and therefore was not entitled to sovereign immunity.26 After that determination, the court ruled that Celebrity was entitled to proceed with its claim for indemnification from the Port Authority.27

IV. Cargo

In A.I.G. Uruguay Compania de Seguros, S.A. v. AAA Cooper Transportation,28 the Eleventh Circuit examined the "sealed container doctrine" and the shifting burden of proof in cases involving this defense.29 Plaintiff shipped three shrink-wrapped pallets of cellular phones from Illinois with an intended destination of Uruguay. While en route from Illinois to Miami, Florida, where the pallets were to be loaded onto an ocean-going vessel, defendant, common carrier AAA Cooper Transportation ("Cooper"), unloaded the shipment from its truck and loaded it into a storage trailer for the weekend. When Cooper's driver returned to pick up the shipment, he discovered that the cellular phones had disappeared from the shipment.30

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida conducted a bench trial and determined that plaintiff had made out a prima facie case against Cooper.31 The court awarded plaintiff a total of $126,000 for the lost cargo. On appeal, Cooper argued that the district court improperly allowed plaintiff to establish its prima facie case by using circumstantial evidence rather than direct evidence, as is required under the sealed container doctrine.32 Under the sealed container doctrine, when the cargo at issue is shipped in a sealed container, "the carrier has no . . . ability to ascertain the contents of the shipment, and [thus,] the shipper is held to a higher standard of proof in establishing its prima facie case.33 The appellate court concluded that under this higher standard of proof, plaintiff shipper cannot rely on the bill of lading alone to prove the condition of the cargo at the time of delivery to the carrier, but instead must supplement this documentary evidence with some form of direct evidence as to the contents of the sealed container.34

V. Maritime Criminal Law

The Eleventh Circuit decided two cases in 2003 concerning the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act ("MDLEA").35 In the first case, United States v. Rendon,36 the court dealt with the issue of enhanced sentencing imposed under the United States Sentencing Guidelines upon a defendant...

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