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United States v. M/V Big Sam

Citation: 12 ELR 20994
No. No. 81-3127, 681 F.2d 432/17 ERC 2169/(5th Cir., 07/30/1982) Aff'd in part, remanded

The Fifth Circuit rules that § 311(g) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) does not preempt the federal government's right under maritime tort law to recover oil spill cleanup costs from the owner or operator of a third-party vessel that negligently caused the discharge, but does preclude recovery of damages under the Refuse Act. Preliminarily, the court holds that, under § 311(g), the owner and the operator of a nondischarging vessel that is the sole cause of an oil spill are jointly and severally liable for cleanup costs. Next, the court rules that the government may seek an in rem remedy against a negligent third-party vessel. Neither the language of the statute nor the legislative history indicate a congressional intent to preclude such a remedy. In addition, because defendants' actions included the elements of a maritime tort and § 311(h)(2) preserves the government's remedies under that legal theory, the government could obtain a maritime lien, which is a prerequisite to in rem jurisdiction.

The court also holds that § 311(g) is not the exclusive vehicle for the government's recovery of cleanup costs against a third-party vessel. Since § 311(h)(2) of the FWPCA provides that the Act does not effect the rights that the government may have against third parties, the court concludes that the government may assert other causes of action against third parties causing or contributing to an oil spill, provided that they are not inconsistent with the remedies provided by § 311(g). It rules that the government's cause of action in maritime tort against the sole-cause third-party vessel and its owner is not preempted. It is not inconsistent with § 311(g) because the owner is entitled to limitation of personal liability. However, any strict liability remedy to be implied from the Refuse Act would provide for recovery of damages without limitation and, therefore, is inconsistent with Congress' intent to limit the strict liability established by § 311(g) for faultless third parties causing oil spills.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Leonard Schaitman, Thomas Snook
Civil Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-3441

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, Calverie & Sims
Hibernia Bank Bldg., New Orleans LA 70112
(504) 566-1311

Before WISDOM, RANDALL and TATE, Circuit Judges.