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Maryland Dep't of Natural Resources v. Kellum

ELR Citation: 26 ELR 20347
Nos. No. 93-1030, 51 F.3d 1220/(4th Cir., 04/18/1995)

The court holds that federal maritime law preempts a Maryland statute that imposes strict liability for damaging natural oyster bars, as it applies to the grounding and re-floating of a barge in tidewater of the lower Potomac River. The court first holds that the grounding of a vessel is a maritime tort for which federal maritime law provides substantive rights and remedies grounded on maritime theories of negligence and damages. The grounding of a barge in navigable waters is an occurrence unique to maritime law, and the oyster bar, while within the borders of Maryland, is under the navigable tidewaters of the Potomac River. Moreover, although the oyster bar is subject to the Submerged Lands Act, that statute is inapplicable to maritime matters. The court next holds that federal maritime law preempts the Maryland statute, because the statute significantly changed the applicable substantive federal maritime law. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, state law may apply to maritime matters if there is no conflict with, or a material change to, federal maritime law. The Maryland statute, however, changed the standard of care the barge owner and operator owed under maritime law from ordinary care to strict liability without regard to fault. The Maryland statute also changed the applicable maritime rule of damages, from proportionate damages according to degree of fault, to placing the entire burden on the person damaging the oyster bar.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Sharon B. Benzil, Ass't Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
100 Community Pl., Crownsville MD 21032
(410) 514-7800

Counsel for Defendants
J. Paul Mullen
Lord & Whip
800 One Center Plaza
120 W. Fayette St., Baltimore MD 21201
(410) 539-5881

Before POWELL, Associate Justice (Retired), United States Supreme Court, sitting by designation, and WIDENER and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.