Law of Negligence — Not Maritime Law — Applied to Damage to Oyster Leases
Written by Kristin Lausten
In an interesting case from St. Bernard Parish, the court held that negligence law applied to damage to oyster beds, not maritime law. See Cibilic v. Cox Operating, LLC, Case No. 2017-CA-0813 (La. App. 4th Cir. June 6, 2018). In that case, the plaintiffs operated oyster leases located in Lake Eloi in about six to 10 feet of water.
In 2012, the defendant, Cox Operating, LLC, began efforts to reopen one of its plugged and abandoned wells located in waters adjacent to the Cibilics’ oyster leases. To get to its abandoned well, Cox needed to use several tugboats to tow a large barge to the site containing a drilling derrick. The vessels and drilling rig remained at the location for several months in the summer of 2012. There was daily vessel traffic to the rig and, in order to access the well, the vessels had to cross directly over the oyster leases, turn in the narrow channel, and use their propellers to maneuver. These maneuvers created “prop wash” which was directed towards the oyster leases and released significant amounts of sediment. The oyster beds were covered in 1-4 inches of soft sediment on top of oyster reefs. Survey data showed that the sediment had buried nearly 50 acres of oyster reef on the leases.
The Cibilics sued Cox on various theories including negligent failure to exercise due care and failure to warn. Following a three-day bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the Cibilics and awarded more than $5 million in damages, interest, and costs. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Of note, the trial court applied Louisiana negligence law, rather than federal maritime law. The trial court stated that the Civil Code, Arts. 667 and 2315 were applicable, identifying several respects in which Cox was negligent including:
- Cox knew or should have known that its project could cause damage to neighboring property and leases that could have been prevented;
- Cox did not exercise reasonable care in use of the tugboats and in positioning the drilling rig;
- Cox failed to provide adequate instruction to its workers and contractors on how to avoid damages to oyster reefs and the displacement of sediment on the water bottoms
The Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly applied Louisiana negligence law to the case. The court did not discuss this aspect at length, but maritime law tends to be applied when “traditional maritime activities” are strongly implicated. Here, a vessel in navigable waters was involved, but the damage was to property and the main activity was oil and gas production.
Despite agreeing with the trial court’s findings on negligence, the Court of Appeals reversed and partially reduced the award of damages. The Court of Appeals criticized the trial court for awarding the plaintiffs more than 5 million in damages, a sum that their own expert admitted was patently excessive. The appellate court noted that the Cibilics never made more than about $147,000 profit in any year they operated the oyster leases and that the award exceeded the total amount all of the plaintiffs’ oyster leases had earned for a decade. The Court of Appeals reduced the award to $3 million.
Louisiana Maritime Defense: Contact New Orleans Defense Attorney Kristin M. Lausten
When defending maritime and Jones Act cases, it is important for defense counsel to use all the available arguments. Anytime a vessel is being overhauled or repaired, the “status” of the vessel may provide a valuable defense.
If you need additional information, contact Louisiana defense attorney Kristin M. Lausten. Ms. Lausten has experience in maritime law and defends complex tort litigation in both state and federal courts. She can be contacted at 504.377.6585 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Kristin M. Lausten
This article is provided as an educational service for general informational purposes only. The material does not constitute legal advice or rendering of professional services.