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A Legal Perspective - When a Boat Hits a Stationary Object

There’s a well-worn story floating around out there about an encounter between a large ship and a lighthouse. Supposedly, the captain of the large ship tells the lighthouse to move out of the way to avoid a collision, under the mistaken belief that the lighthouse is a small vessel. While the tale often becomes more embellished if the storyteller happens to be at a bar among friends, the ending is more or less predictable in nautical circles. The lighthouse keeper replies with a radio message to the large ship that he won’t be able to make the requested course change because he is a lighthouse and not another vessel. The lighthearted story does get the point across that stationary objects can’t make way for moving vessels. And in the realm of maritime law, there are certain rules and concepts that support this basic premise. The law even goes so far as to provide terminology that distinguishes between a situation involving two moving vessels hitting one another from that of a vessel hitting a stationary object. We know that two moving vessels hitting one another is a collision. But a vessel hitting a stationary object is called an allision. Who cares what words are used to describe these events, right? They’re both bad. But the difference runs deeper than mere terminology. When two moving vessels collide, a judge will examine the navigation rules to determine who was at fault. But when a boat strikes a stationary object, a number of other interesting issues can emerge. One of them is a certain maritime law presumption known as the Oregon Rule. A presumption is essentially a “given” under the law. For instance, one of the cornerstones of the criminal justice system is the “given” that a defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. We see this come up all the time on TV crime dramas. It’s one of the most well-known legal presumptions in our society. Under maritime law, when a moving boat hits a stationary object, there is a presumption that the mishap it would not have occurred without some error on the part of the boat. In other words, a boat in an allision is legally in a bad spot right from the get-go. However, maritime law also recognizes the possibility that there can be fault on both the part of the moving vessel and the owner of the stationary object. This can arise in situations involving construction barges obstructing passage under a bridge. Just as with accidents involving cars, this notion of dividing blame among the parties is known as comparative liability. It means everyone can have some share of fault, some more than others, depending on their conduct. And given the wording of the navigation rules in certain paragraphs, one realizes this is not such a surprising outcome. A case that took place on the Columbia River might serve to illustrate the legal issues that arise in allisions. A small boat was being used for fishing on a rainy night. It struck a dolphin that had been erected by a paper mill on the river. A dolphin is a structure formed by a cluster of pilings fastened together. Here, it consisted of a bundle of five steel beams rising twenty-six feet out of the water at low tide. The allision resulted in a lawsuit against the paper mill. The paper mill attempted to have the case dismissed. The argument made on behalf of the boat was that the dolphin was not installed in compliance with a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The paper mill’s response was that even so, the location of the dolphin wouldn’t have been any different. Also, the court determined that the dolphin was not a hidden danger but a large structure in plain sight, even in the darkness. The court ruled in favor of the paper mill. In these settings, whether or not a stationary object presents a hazard to navigation could be a matter of judgment left to a court to decide, based on safety regulations and prior legal decisions. However, the fact remains that vessels in these types of cases can face serious challenges in demonstrating fault on the part of the stationary object. Happy New Year and best wishes to all of you for the year ahead!

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