Potential Impacts of Offshore Legislation on Industry

Jonathan K. Waldron and Stefanos N. Roulakis

The U.S. House of Representatives has introduced legislation that could potentially greatly alter the landscape for oil, gas, and wind installation and decommissioning activities on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”). Stakeholders should examine the legislation for impacts to their operations.

New Development

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure marked up and approved H.R. 3409, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2019 (“2019 CGAA”) on June 26, 2019. This legislation, if enacted, could have significant impacts on how oil, gas, and wind vessel activities are conducted on the OCS. Of particular note, the legislation could have an outsized effect on offshore wind in the United States, which is at a nascent stage and requires installation activities of the type contemplated in the 2019 CGAA.

Background

In January 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) proposed to overturn decades of precedent with regard to offshore operations potentially subject to the Jones Act in its “Proposed Modification and Revocation of Ruling Letters Relating to Customs Application of the Jones Act to the Transportation of Certain Merchandise and Equipment Between Coastwise Points” (the “Notice”). The Notice, which was published in the CBP Customs Bulletin, proposed the modification of approximately 25 CBP rulings that delineated the difference between “equipment of the vessel,” the transportation of which does not implicate the Jones Act, and “merchandise,” which may only be transported by qualified vessels under the Jones Act.

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The Supreme Court Rejects Punitive Damages in Unseaworthiness Claims

Keith B. Letourneau, William R. Bennett III, John D. Kimball, and Zachary J. Wyatte

A recent United States Supreme Court ruling held that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a maritime claim of unseaworthiness. This new ruling has resolved a split among the circuits and has essentially reinforced an otherwise long-standing precedent.

On June 24, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided Dutra Group v. Batterton, holding 6-3, that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court in which Justices Roberts, Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined.

This case arose from a personal injury incident aboard a vessel. Christopher Batterton was working as a deckhand on the vessel, which The Dutra Group owned and operated, when a hatch cover blew open and severely injured his hand. Batterton sued Dutra, asserting a variety of claims, including unseaworthiness, and sought general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to dismiss the punitive damages claim, arguing that such damages were not available on claims for unseaworthiness. The District Court denied Dutra’s motion, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. But the Supreme Court reversed.

The Court noted that the overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims and that the lack of punitive damages in traditional maritime law cases is “practically dispositive.” The Court said, “because there is no historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions, and in order to promote uniformity with the way courts have applied parallel statutory causes of action, we hold that punitive damages remain unavailable in unseaworthiness actions.”

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The Supreme Court Adopts a Middle of the Road Approach When Deciding a Manufacturer’s Duty to Warn in the Context of Maritime Tort Asbestosis Cases

John D. Kimball and Noe S. Hamra

 

On March 19, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court in Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries held that, under maritime law, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn of asbestos or other hazardous parts when its own product, although not containing such hazardous parts, requires its later incorporation, and the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated part is likely to be dangerous for its intended use. The Supreme Court’s decision settles a longstanding conflict between federal and state courts regarding the applicable rule in maritime tort cases. Manufacturers of such products must take this ruling into account when evaluating product warnings.

Background

For years, federal and state courts have struggled to find consensus on the applicable rule regarding a manufacturer’s duty to warn of the danger of its products when those products later had dangerous parts added to them. Prior to Devries, courts generally applied one of three approaches.

The first approach, viewed as plaintiff-friendly, relied on mere foreseeability. Under this approach, if it was foreseeable that the manufacturer’s product would be used with another product or part, even if the manufacturer’s product did not require use or incorporation of that other product or part, then the manufacturer could face liability for failure to warn.

The second approach, viewed as defendant-friendly, relieves manufacturers of any liability if they do not make, sell, or distribute the dangerous part or incorporate the dangerous part into the product, even if the product requires incorporation of the part and the manufacturer knows that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended use (this is also known as the “bare-metal defense”).

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Has the Ground Shifted under the Law Concerning When a Party Is “Found within the District” for Purposes of Rule B?

Thomas H. Belknap, Jr., and Noe S. Hamra

It has long been the law in the Second Circuit that when a foreign party registers with the New York Department of State to conduct business in New York and designates an agent within the district upon whom process may be served, it will be “found within the district” for purposes of Rule B of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (the “Admiralty Rules”). This precedent was clearly established in STX Panocean (UK) Co. v. Glory Wealth Shipping Pte Ltd., 560 F.3d 127, 133 (2d Cir. 2009), where the Second Circuit unequivocally held that “a company registered with the Department of State is ‘found’ [within the district] for purposes of Rule B… .”

Recent developments in the law concerning the constitutional scope of a court’s personal jurisdiction, however, combined with the absence of clear legislative statements in New York’s registration statute, raise fresh questions about the continuing viability of STX Panocean’s holding, and the extent to which a party can seek to immunize itself against Rule B attachment in a state by registering there. Continue reading “Has the Ground Shifted under the Law Concerning When a Party Is “Found within the District” for Purposes of Rule B?”

Jeffrey Moller Elected to the Maritime Law Association’s Board of Directors

Blank Rome Partner Jeffrey S. Moller has been elected to the board of directors of the Maritime Law Association of the United States (“MLA”) for a three-year term. A member since 1988, Jeffrey has also served as chairman of MLA’s Committee on Regulation of Vessel Operations.

Founded in 1899, the MLA is the primary maritime law organization in the United States with over 3,600 members. The objectives of the MLA are to advance reforms in U.S. maritime law; furnish a forum for discussion of problems affecting maritime law and its administration; participate as a constituent member of the Comité Maritime International and affiliated organization of the American Bar Association; and act with other associations in efforts to bring about a greater harmony in the shipping laws, regulations, and practices of different nations.

For more information, please visit mlaus.org.

The Future of the “Safe Port” Warranty: Smooth Sailing or Murkier Waters?

Emma C. Jones

In an age when cybersecurity breaches regularly make headlines, and autonomous vessels are appearing on the not-so-distant horizon, it’s important to consider how age-old contracts like maritime charter parties will fare in the face of rapidly changing technology and the security risks that come with it.

The “safe port” warranty is a tenet of charter party language, and an unsafe port or berth is often asserted in commercial negotiations as justification for damages resulting from delays or damage at port. While there is not a great deal of case law analyzing the warranty in the context of modern technological risks and threats, the cases and arbitration awards that we do have provide an interesting background against which to con­sider the potential for an expansion of the definition of the safe port warranty in an increasingly tech-based world. Continue reading “The Future of the “Safe Port” Warranty: Smooth Sailing or Murkier Waters?”

Gulf Coast Update: The Fifth Circuit Establishes a New “Maritime Contract” Test

David G. Meyer

Whether a particular contract is “maritime” is a legal question that can often arise in disputes subject to potential adjudication in the U.S. court system. There can be several reasons for this. One reason concerns determining whether a civil action can be heard in federal court versus state court. If a maritime contract is at issue, a case might be litigated in federal instead of state courts, and/or a plaintiff might have the ability to file an action in federal court for a pre-judgment arrest or attachment of a vessel or other property of a defendant.

Knock for Knock Defense and Indemnity Clauses

Another area where the issue regularly arises concerns con­tracts connected to oil and gas exploration and drilling activities in both inshore and offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico. By way of background, oilfield services contracts in the Gulf of Mexico region routinely contain what are known as “knock for knock” defense and indemnity clauses. In a typical knock for knock scheme, each company on a job agrees to indemnify, defend, and provide additional insured coverage to the others so that each is liable for injury to its own employees, regardless of fault. The intent underlying this is to apportion the insurable risk each contracting party bears to their relative size and role in the venture. Theoretically, this allows smaller companies to compete for jobs without potentially cost-prohibitive insurance premiums, and costs are further reduced by a decreased need to litigate the issue of liability among multiple defendants, as liability is assumed irrespective of fault or negligence of any other party. Continue reading “Gulf Coast Update: The Fifth Circuit Establishes a New “Maritime Contract” Test”