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Barnacle Marine Management Inc. v. Vulcan Materials Co.

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20297
Nos. 98-30545, 233 F.3d 865/(5th Cir., 12/01/2000)

The court reverses a district court decision dismissing the United States from a Limitation of Shipowners' Liability Act (Limitation Act) proceeding initiated by a tow boat company and a barge company in order to limit their liability for damages caused to a U.S. government lock on the Ouachita River in Louisiana. The tow boat company caused the barge company's barge to collide with a lock resulting in $1,247,300 damages. The two companies sought to limit their liability under the Limitation Act, and the United States filed Rivers and Harbors Act (RHA) claims against both companies. The district court held that RHA §§408 and 412 granted the United States an in personam remedy against the companies and, thus, dismissed the United States from the limitation proceeding so that it could recover its full damages under the RHA.

The court first holds that RHA §§408 and 412 give the United States an in rem remedy, not an in personam remedy. RHA §408 makes it unlawful for any person to damage or otherwise interfere with a public work built by the United States. RHA §412 provides the civil remedies for violation of RHA §408, but by its express terms RHA §412 provides only an in rem remedy against the vessel in violation of RHA §408. The court next holds that an in personam remedy cannot be implied in this case. U.S. Supreme Court precedent, in which the Supreme Court found an implied in personam remedy under RHA §409, does not apply to this case. In implying an in personam remedy under RHA §409, the Supreme Court relied on language peculiar to RHA §409 that triggered the U.S. right to a declaratory judgment directing a ship owner to remove a wreck. RHA §408 does not give the United States similar declaratory relief. Therefore, because the United States did not have in personam jurisdiction under RHA §408, it should not have been removed from the companies' Limitation Act proceeding.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Bernard H. Ticer
Burke & Mayer
Energy Center
1100 Poydras St., 20th Fl., New Orleans LA 70163
(504) 569-2900

Counsel for Defendants
Richard B. Foster
Lemle & Kelleher
Pan-American Life Center
601 Poydras St., 21st Fl., New Orleans LA 70130
(504) 586-1241

Before Wood1 and Barksdale, JJ.