High court to decide who pays in mishaps Issue concerns blame when accidents have several causes

November 23, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to sort out who must pay for losses when a tanker or cargo ship breaks away from its mooring because docking equipment fails and the captain's errors cause it to run aground.

Behind a case growing out of the loss of an Exxon oil tanker off the island of Oahu in Hawaii is a dispute over fault when a ship accident has several contributing causes. Lower courts have decided the issue in different ways.

The case goes back to the loss in 1989 of the Exxon Houston, a 72,000-ton, 766-foot tanker, after it hit an undersea coral formation. It did so after breaking loose from a mooring buoy in the waters off a Hawaiian oil refinery.

Exxon Co. USA and its tanker affiliate, Exxon Shipping Co., argued in the new appeal that federal admiralty law is supposed to be uniform across the country, but that ship accidents are governed by conflicting court interpretations of how to allocate blame.

They argued that a 1975 Supreme Court ruling made clear that the vessel and its owner cannot be held solely to blame when they were only partly at fault for an accident. Liability, the court said then, is to be apportioned according to actual shares of blame.

In the Exxon case, however, a federal appeals court ruled in April that if a ship's crew engaged in "extraordinary negligence" that contributed to an accident, the ship and its owner are solely responsible -- even if someone else was also partly at fault.

Before the 1989 accident, Exxon's tanker was unloading Alaskan crude oil through hoses connected to an undersea pipeline to a Hawaiian refinery. A storm came up, and the mooring chains broke, casting the vessel free, with two broken hose lines dragging along underwater.

With the hose lines leaking oil and threatening to become fouled in the Houston's propeller, Captain Kevin Coyne steered the vessel for nearly three hours.

His last maneuver was to make a sharp turn toward shore, causing the Houston to hit a coral pinnacle. He had lost his way, apparently because of failure to take continuous navigational fixes. His first mate could have done that but had gone below to help an injured seaman. The remaining cargo of oil was spilled, and the Houston was declared a total loss.

Exxon sued the Hawaiian refinery and those who had made and installed the mooring buoy linked to the refinery's pipeline and hoses. Exxon contended that the mooring arrangement was faulty and had broken because of its defects, thus setting the Houston adrift in a storm.

The companies that Exxon sued contended that Exxon deserved all the blame, because the main cause of the loss from the grounding was the steering and navigational errors of the captain. The courts agreed, refusing to assign blame to anyone but Exxon and its crew.

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