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Legal Perspective - The Duty of Care in Mooring a Vessel for Severe Weather

Most readers are all too familiar with that well-worn expression that the two happiest days in boaters’ lives are the day they buy their boat and the day they sell their boat. But when rough weather arrives in anchorages, vessel owners might add to that expression the days that their boat is safe and secure in the aftermath of storms. Here in the Northeast, in the course of a few short months, things can go from summer doldrums to heavy seas in late fall that strain mooring pennants to their limits. The issue of securing a vessel in the face of impending bad weather became a legal issue many years ago when Hurricane Dennis hit the Gulf Coast of Florida. The hurricane resulted in a vessel breaking loose from its mooring and hitting another moored vessel. In the lawsuit that followed, the duty of reasonable care in mooring a vessel was examined by a federal court. The vessel that broke loose was a 55-foot Tayana ketch and it struck a 65-foot Hatteras sportfisherman. It all happened when the hurricane battered the Gulf with 85 to 90 mph winds that gusted to 105 mph. The owner of the Hatteras took strong measures in the face of the impending hurricane. This included deploying two anchors, one off the port bow and the other set on shore. Heavy nylon lines were also used to secure the boat to freestanding pilings on both sides, and a tree on shore. The owner of the sailboat also took strong measures in ensuring safe and secure anchorage. This included attaching it to a concrete mooring using a 40-foot line to make a 20-foot bridle with a rubber tire to take up the shock. He deployed a Super Max storm anchor with snubber by dropping it and reversing power. The anchor had a holding power of 80,000 pounds, while the sailboat was 48,400 pounds. During the storm, the sailboat broke loose and allided with the sportfisherman. The owner of the sportfisherman sued. The court examined a number of legal issues, one being the maritime law presumption that a moving vessel that allides with a stationary vessel is presumed to be at fault. While that presumption put the onus on the sailboat, maritime law also provides a means of rebutting this presumption. The presumption against the moving vessel can be challenged when one of the following conditions is met, being (1) that the allision was the fault of the stationary object, (2) the moving vessel acted with reasonable care, or (3) that the allision was an unavoidable accident. Fischer, 508 F.3d at 593; Bunge Corp., 240 F. 3d at 923. The owner of the sailboat argued that he exercised reasonable care in preparing the sailboat for the hurricane, or in addition applying the third element, that the accident was unavoidable due to the hurricane. Another presumption of maritime law was raised, where it was argued that failure to obtain a mooring permit was a violation of a statutory rule. But the court ruled that such violation was not relevant in terms of preventing this type of accident. It would have been more an administrative issue, akin to the relevance of an expired vehicle registration in a motor vehicle accident. From a legal standpoint, the permit would have had no bearing on preventing the allision. The court ruled for the owner of the sailboat and concluded that he exercised reasonable seamanship in taking measures to secure the boat in the face of the impending hurricane. As with many maritime law settings, courts will examine the level of care exercised in a given situation, whether that care involves mooring a vessel, navigating a treacherous inlet, or cautiously sailing through fog. Speaking of rough seas, the current pandemic has brought its share of hardship to the people of our community and local businesses. We wish all of you strength in weathering the personal and economic pain inflicted by this storm; we hope the future holds the promise of better days. Best wishes to all of you for a Wonderful Holiday Season and a Happy New Year! Tim, Erol

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