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United States v. M/V Big Sam

ELR Citation: 11 ELR 20502
Nos. No. 78-86, 505 F. Supp. 1029/17 ERC 1290/(E.D. La., 01/22/1981) Final judgment

The court rules that under §311(g) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), the owner of a "third party" vessel causing the discharge of oil into navigable waters is not liable to the United States for cleanup costs where the owner proved that the spill was caused solely by an act of the vessel's operator. The United States brought suit to recover cleanup costs from the owner of the vessel, which was chartered to and operated by an independent contractor. In an earlier decision, the third party operator was found to have negligently caused the collision and resulting oil discharge. The court rules that §311(g), unlike §311(f), does not provide for a maritime lien and action in rem against the discharging vessel. The court also rejects plaintiff's argument that the owner should be jointly and severally liable with the operator. The strict liability principles embodied in §311(f) do not apply to actions under §311(g). Since the owner retained no control over the vessel and was not negligent, its motion to dismiss is granted. Finally, the court finds that it is within its discretion to grant the United States prejudgment interest, accruing from the date the claim was filed, on the penalty assessed against the vessel's operator.

Counsel for Plaintiff
John P. Volz, U.S. Attorney; Leonard P. Avery, Ass't U.S. Attorney
Fed. Bldg., 500 Camp St., New Orleans LA 70130
(504) 589-2921

James A. Lewis
Civil Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 724-7292

Counsel for Defendants
Norman R. Pizza
Reuter & Reuter
303 S. Broad St., New Orleans LA 70119
(504) 822-9748

Thomas J. Wagner
Phelps, Dunbar, Marks, Claverie & Sims
Hibernia Bank Bldg., New Orleans LA 70112
(504) 566-1311