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Legal Perspective - Increasingly Complex Vessels Raise Interesting Legal Issues

We live in a world that has become very technologically complex. The phones we use, the cars we drive, and the boats on which we unwind all seem to acquire more and more “smart” features by the day. Looking at boating books from an earlier generation, the leap in technology a reader notices is striking. Many of those books tended to limit their discussions about navigation to paper charts and traditional tools, such as parallel rules. Today, electronic navigation has revolutionized the basic art of plotting a course from point A to point B. Some could find the traditional ways of navigating as dated as the crumbling and yellowed pages of those old boating books, where people on Elco cruisers in dress slacks and blazers pull up to gas docks as they’re greeted by attendants wearing ties. While boating attire has become simpler, in terms of khaki shorts and T-shirts, the level of technology one finds on vessels today has become significantly more complex. Just look at a photo of the RMS Queen Mary’s bridge in the pre-war years, with those multiple sets of engine order telegraphs and steering pedestals. Impressive as they are, none of the instrumentation on that bridge could match the sophistication of a 30-foot family cruiser today with its compact radar and digital chart displays. Walking into a well-equipped boat supply store nowadays, one sees a knowledgeable staff behind the counter instructing people on how to program such navigational electronics. Although this technology is a powerful tool, it presents burdens of its own, in terms of requiring familiarity with its use. There’s a lot to learn. And I don’t speak from a high and mighty soapbox here, for I’ll humbly admit I’m one of those people who need a tech-savvy ten-year old to help use some of the features of a smartphone. But a lawsuit heard before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals could illustrate the complexity of today’s navigational electronics. The case arose after a commercial vessel struck an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. In the early morning hours of October 4, 2004, a 396-ton fishing vessel was steaming on the Gulf after leaving its base of operations in Cameron, Louisiana. It was equipped with a Furuno 1731 Mark-3 Radar, Pinpoint Navigational Chart System, and autopilot. The company operating the vessel had not provided the captain with training in the use of the radar. And it did not have policies regarding use of the anti-collision alarm. The vessel was doing between 9 and 11 knots in the calm seas. Visibility was between 7 and 8 miles. After the vessel was underway for several hours, the chief engineer entered the bridge to advise the captain about a problem with the refrigeration plant, bringing a malfunctioning part with him. The captain scanned the horizon to check for obstacles, and after concluding there were none, he turned on the bridge lights to examine the part. He agreed with the chief engineer that the part was broken. About fifteen minutes later, while the captain was placing a call ashore to arrange for a replacement part, the vessel struck an oil platform. It was part of a cluster of platforms known as Joseph’s Harbor Rigs. The oil platform’s lights were not on. When the matter went trial, the court ruled that the captain of the fishing vessel had violated the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (“COLREGS”) in that he did not maintain a lookout by sight and hearing, as well as other available means. The court also ruled that the energy company operating the oil rig committed a statutory violation by failing to have operational lights on a fixed structure. The court decided that both sides were at fault on a 50-50 basis. On appeal, the energy company argued that the lights of its rig were operational, and that the accident could have been prevented if the vessel had been equipped with functional navigational aids or updated charts, or if the crew had used the anti-collision alarm feature. However, the higher court affirmed the decision of the lower court. In other words, it let the original decision stand, where blame had been split between the two parties. The court’s decision validates the relevance and sophistication of today’s navigational electronics and how they can play a role in the determining who is at fault when vessels collide or run into stationary objects. I wish all of you a happy and safe Labor Day weekend! Ref: In the Matter of the Complaint of Omega Protein v. Samsun Contour Energy, Nov. 2008, Case No. 07-30725, Appeal from the United States District Court, Western District of Louisiana.

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