It stands to reason that if a vessel operates in violation of a safety reg, and an accident results from that violation, then those harmed by the accident have a pretty easy case establishing the vessel operator’s civil liability. But what if it’s not so clear whether disregard of a law actually caused the mishap?
Per general precepts of our legal system, the plaintiff in a lawsuit bears the burden of proof to demonstrate all aspects of its claim, including that the defendant(s) committed wrongdoing, and that such wrongdoing proximately caused the plaintiff to suffer damages. If evidence shows a probability of both circumstances, then the plaintiff prevails, and bucks typically get awarded to the claimant.
But the American shipping industry, its governing body of maritime law and the Coast Guard have always been particularly concerned with safety and retribution for violations of law designed to promote it. Thus, in 1873, when the U.S. Supreme Court addressed a collision between two vessels during a foggy New Jersey night, the fact one rang a bell instead of tooting a statutorily required foghorn created a legal presumption that this violation of law caused the accident.
Maybe it did cause the collision, and maybe it didn’t. Maybe the accident would unavoidably have happened anyway. We don’t know and never will. “But,” as the High Court ruled,
… when ... a ship at the time of collision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster. In such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been. Such a rule is necessary to enforce obedience to the mandate of the statute...
This causational concept of maritime law became known as “the Pennsylvania Rule” (nothing to do with the Keystone State; “Pennsylvania” was the vessel’s name). Put a bit more simply, it provides that when a vessel is operated in violation of a reg or other rule of law that’s aimed at safety, and that vessel subsequently is involved in a litigation-producing accident, it’s not enough for the vessel’s operator to argue the absence of proof such violation caused or contributed to the accident. Rather, it bears a burden to prove that the violation of law could not have been related to the accident. The presumption is that it was related.
That’s how seriously we take marine law designed to protect life and property. The rule only shifts the plaintiff’s burden of proof to the defendant vessel operator regarding an element of causation, but can have significant results. Beating application of the rule is a tough task; you basically have to prove a negative in the face of a presumption typically being enforced by a scowl-faced, federal judge who isn’t sympathetic to your cause.
The Pennsylvania Rule was designed for collision cases, and has been held by some courts inapplicable to non-navigation accidents (including Jones Act personal injury claims). Some courts also say it also doesn’t apply in international cargo claims governed by the U.S. Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, which provides its own burden of proof structure that otherwise wouldn’t make sense.
Claimants love the rule and frequently seek to apply it. When they raise the specter of this uniquely maritime, causation doctrine, defendants and their lawyers immediately focus on demonstrating either that there was no violation of a safety reg; or that any such violation was so remote from the accident that it couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with the mishap. Such recently was the case when a collision tragically took the life of a U.S. Navy student who was operating a rigid-hull inflatable boat (“RHIB”) near a tug pushing a barge flotilla.
The student’s estate argued that one of the RHIB’s running lights was obstructed by a radar dome, which would violate a Inland Rule 23 governing operation of this type vessel under the prevailing circumstances. At the trial level, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia didn’t see it that way, finding that the RHIB’s lights functioned properly and without obstruction, at least for relevant purposes. Going through how the rule works, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that conclusion based on the lack of any suggestion in the trial court’s opinion that a violation of Inland Rule 23 occurred, much less caused the accident. The Pennsylvania Rule is an effective tool for claimants, but there has to be some basis to apply it.
Ref: In the Matter of the Complaint of Vulcan Materials Co. v. Messiah v. United States, 2011 WL 1718896 (4th Cir. 2011); The Pennsylvania, 86 U.S. 125 (1873).
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