Investigation of Marine Casualties – Rights of Parties in Interest

Flickr Coast Guard InvestigationWhen a marine casualty occurs the U.S. Coast Guard is empowered to conduct an investigation to determine “as closely as possible” the cause of the casualty, cause of any death, whether an act of misconduct, incompetence, negligence, unskillfulness, or willful violation of law committed by any licensed or certified individual or member of the Coast Guard contributed to the cause of the casualty, whether there is evidence that an act subjecting the offender to a civil or criminal penalty has been committed and whether there is a need for new laws or regulations, or amendment or appeal of existing laws or regulations. 46 U.S.C. 6301.

But what about the rights of the parties to the casualty? What is the extent of their participation in the investigation?  46 U.S.C. 6303 provides that in such an investigation parties in interest (PII) shall be allowed to be represented by counsel, cross-examine and call witnesses.  PIIs include an owner, any holder of a license or certificate of registry, holder of a merchant mariner’s document, any person whose conduct is under investigation, and any other party in interest.  This has been expanded to include any person who the USCG finds to have a “direct interest” into the investigation.  However, in practice these guidelines do not provide much relief to the owner of a subject vessel when on-the-scene interviews and inspections by the Coast Guard are underway in the immediate wake of a significant marine casualty.  The degree that the PII could actively participate and be privy to interviews, statements and other discovered evidence was largely dependent upon the discretion of the investigating officers.

In 2010, in response to industry calls for more active participation, inclusion and transparency, the Coast Guard issued CG-545 Policy Letter 3-10. In it the Coast Guard made clear that PIIs have the right to participate in “all levels of investigation”, not just formal hearings.  This is important.  The PII has the right to immediate participation.  This includes the right to be present during interviews of all witnesses (not just those of its own crew or employees), to be present during on-scene inspections, to present evidence to the Coast Guard and request that particular witnesses be interviewed.

To be clear, however, the Policy Letter mandates that the Marine Board of Investigation or Investigating Officer (IO) are in charge of all aspects of the investigation. In order for an interested party to participate it must be recognized by the Board or IO as a PII.  The IO has the prerogative to formally designate PIIs during the course of the investigation.  But the party that believes it is a stakeholder in the casualty is best served by making formal application with the IO to be designated as a PII.  When application is made the IO must give it due consideration.  If the applicant meets the criteria found in Part 6303 and Part 2 of the Policy Letter it “shall” be given PII status.  The request for PII recognition may be made verbally, but needs to be followed in writing within 24 hours.  The IO’s initial designation may be verbal, but needs to be made in writing by the IO within 5 business days of receipt of the written request for PII designation.

The stakeholder needs to know that the IO is not required to designate PIIs. It is incumbent on the stakeholder to act early and promptly to contact the IO and make clear that it seeks PII status.  The IO is required to notify the PII when witnesses will be interviewed, but is not obligated to accommodate the schedule of the PII.  If the PII provides a witness the IO shall determine if the witness is relevant to the investigation.  If the IO finds that the witness is not relevant, the witness will not be interviewed.

During interviews the IO is in charge. When the IO has completed his portion of the interview, the PII then may ask questions.  The IO is empowered to determine if the questions the PII asks are relevant.  If he finds that a question is not relevant it will not be allowed and the witness informed not to respond.  Part 4e of the Letter provides that the rights of the PII apply only to conducting witness interviews.  The IO “may” allow the PII to review any or all evidence gathered during the fact-finding portion of the investigation.  The PII is not allowed to have its own copies (in any form) of any documentation (read: statements) with the exception of the names and work information of the witnesses.  Additionally the IO “may” allow the PII to review the findings of fact portion of the report of investigation, but the PII is prohibited from being involved in the development or review of analysis, conclusions or recommendations for a marine casualty investigation.  As is obvious, while the Policy Letter does provide for active PII participation, it does leave to the IO significant discretion what witness or evidence he will deem worthy of consideration.  Irrespective of this, the PII should take every opportunity to submit witnesses and evidence it believes is favorable to its interests.

While the language in Part 4c restricts access by the PII to third-party documents such as log books, photos, witness statements and other evidence and what witnesses will be deemed relevant, in practice I have found that the on-site Coast Guard investigators more times than not want to work with industry and will share documents, provide access to evidence that is developed, and will accommodate the work schedules of witnesses and company representatives or PIIs.

Excellent Flickr Photo courtesy of Jonathan James.

Marine Safety Alerts

On October 9, 2014 the U.S. Coast Guard issued two Marine Safety Alerts that are of particular interest to barge fleeting, terminals and repair facilities situated on the navigable waters of our state. These Alerts do not break new ground, but are worthy of review.

Safety Alert 11-14 addresses barge fleet lighting. The Coast Guard reminds industry that in the last 12 years there have been at least 44 collisions by recreational vessels with moored barges that have resulted in 26 fatalities and 44 injuries in the Eight District, which includes the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Lighting of the moored barges was a factor in most of these casualties. The intent of the Alert is to not only to remind fleet and terminal operators of the importance and necessity of proper, sufficient lighting, but to remind boaters of the dangers present when operating near and around barge fleets.

Rule 30 of the Inland Rules of the Road, “Anchored Vessels and Vessels Aground”, was amended in July of this year to incorporate barge lighting requirements that were previously found in other regulations. Part (h) requires that barges projecting into a buoyed or restricted channel, any barge moored so that it reduces a navigable channel to less than 80 meters (263 ft.), barges moored in groups of two or more wide, and every barge not moored parallel to a dock or the bank must carry two unobstructed all around white lights of an intensity to be visible for at least one nautical mile. Part (j) requires that such lights be placed on the outboard corners or extremities of single and groups of barges so as to mark their perimeters.

That these requirements are clearly spelled out in the Rule has significance from a legal liability perspective. In the general maritime law, the alleged violator of a statutory rule intended to prevent marine casualties is presumed at fault and the burden is on the alleged violator to prove not only that its violation was not a contributing cause of the casualty, but that it could not have been a cause. This is a heavy burden to carry. Diligent adherence to these regulations is a must.

Safety Alert 10-14 speaks to preventing barge explosions. This alert was issued in response to recent casualties from explosions aboard barges in tank cleaning, stripping and gas-freeing operations. The Coast Guard’s review of such events has shown that their cause is typically not limited to one party, but by the combined lapses on the part of vessel personnel, facility personnel and shoreside managers.

Those in the industry are well aware that the Coast Guard requires each such facility to have in place Operations Manuals. 33 CFR §154.300, 310, et. seq., sets forth in detail the necessary contents of the Manual. The list is lengthy, but essentially must set out the business of the facility, types of vessels and cargo being worked and handled, operating procedures and emergency response protocols. Each facility must have a Manual approved by the Captain of the Port. Having found that the most common causal factor associated with tank barge explosions is the failure to follow key Operating Manual procedures, the Coast Guard expects strict compliance.

The Alert reminds operators to ensure that personnel are thoroughly trained and credentialed, proper ventilation be in effect, that the barge/vessel is properly grounded and that spark-producing equipment be removed, prohibit vessels operating nearby so as to avoid the introduction of a source of vapor ignition, and the barge/vessel be certified safe by a Certified Marine Chemist before any hot work is conducted or closed spaces entered.

Much of what is contained in these Alerts may be self-evident to those who are engaged daily in these practices. However, being familiar with a practice is no guarantee that the persons engaged will not start taking for granted that procedures are being followed. An isolated lapse can lead to serious injury and property damage. Thus, reminders such as these Alerts help to insure that all personnel remain vigilant.

These Marine Safety Alerts may be found by visiting the U.S. Coast Guard 8th District website,

Recent Development of Interest: Watervale Marine v. U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security

In July the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in a case of first impression, considered whether the U.S. Coast Guard had authority to impose non-financial conditions for the release of a foreign flag vessel that it had detained at a United States port due to suspected violations of federal and international environmental law.  (Watervale Marine Co., LTD v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, et al.)

The plaintiff is owner of four foreign flagged merchant vessels that the Coast Guard detained for investigation of criminal violations and later released, but only after plaintiff had posted a bond and executed a “security agreement” that contained various non-financial obligations.  Plaintiff challenged the non-financial security agreements that it had been required to execute in order to gain release of the vessels on the grounds that the Coast Guard lacked statutory authority to require any such condition prior to releasing the vessels.

The underlying facts were not in dispute.  Whistleblowers on board each ship had reported to the Coast Guard alleged violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (“APPS”, 33 U.S.C. 1901-1915), which was passed with the intent to “achieve complete elimination of intentional pollution of the marine environment by oil and other harmful substances…”.  APPS was enacted by Congress because the United States had entered into a treaty with other foreign nations called the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships, commonly known as MARPOL.  As a signatory to the MARPOL, the U.S. was required to enact laws to administer and enforce MARPOL.  Thus APPS was conceived.

Under APPS the Coast Guard is authorized to board and inspect ships that call on U.S. ports in order to detect violations of APPS and other environmental laws.  Before departing a U.S. port a foreign flag ship must obtain departure clearance from Customs and under APPS the government can withhold clearance for established or suspected APPS violations.  APPS also provides that a ship that has been so detained and which may be liable for a fine or civil penalty may be granted clearance upon filing of a bond or other satisfactory surety.

The “non-financial” obligations imposed on Watervale to gain release of its vessels were exacting.  It required the crew to remain in the jurisdiction until the investigation was complete, that Watervale had to pay the crew their wages and provide housing and a per diem, keep the crew on as employees, encourage the crew to cooperate with the Coast Guard, arrange for repatriation of the crew, stipulate to authenticity of documents and items seized, help the government serve subpoenas on crew located abroad, waive objections to the jurisdiction and enter an appearance in federal court.  Faced with the prospect of serious financial loss if its vessels were not released Watervale signed the agreement.  This was in addition to a surety bond paid out to the United States if the government prevailed in subsequent prosecution and a judgment entered against Watervale.

In a lengthy decision the Court concluded that APPS, as written, did not put constraints on the power of the Coast Guard to determine the conditions to which a vessel owner must agree to gain release of its vessel.  It found that with passage of APPS, Congress places the question of whether, and under what circumstances, departure clearance is to be granted entirely within the Coast Guard’s discretion.  Put another way, even if Watervale was correct that a bond or other “financial” surety is a necessary prerequisite for release by the Coast Guard, the statute makes clear that the Coast Guard “may” release the vessel upon posting of such a bond, and does not provide any statutory standards by which to assess the circumstances under which the Coast Guard may or may not grant clearance.  Thus, the Coast Guard was free to impose any other conditions is thought appropriate in the exercise of its discretion.

Of perhaps more relevance to the day to day operation of our Port, after a long delay the Transportation Security Administration began nationwide implementation of the TWIC OneVisit program.  This program, the result of years of urging by industry and certain members of Congress, reforms the process of procuring a TWIC card so that the applicant does not have to make two in-person visits to an enrollment center to retrieve his card.  Now, the applicant can apply for his card at an enrollment center and then have his card mailed to him.  For many mariners this is significant given the time and expense they have had to incur making this extra trip.  As stated by Rep. Don Young, (R-Alaska), this reform was necessary so that “thousands of transportation workers across the nation can spend less time traveling to TWIC offices and more time working to put food on their families’ tables”.  Visit for more information

False Distress Call Results in Serious Criminal Penalties

In March 2012, an aircraft pilot falsely reported observing a fishing boat with four passengers in distress in Lake Erie.  In response to the distress call, the U. S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces launched a massive search and rescue mission that lasted over 21 hours.  Substantial costs were incurred by both agencies totaling over a half a million dollars.  During a subsequent investigation, the pilot admitted to the Coast Guard that his report of a boat in distress was fabricated.

The pilot was indicted and later pled guilty to making a false distress call, a felony under 14 USC §88.  In addition to a three month prison term and three years supervised release, the pilot was ordered to pay restitution to the U. S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces to the full extent of the expenses they incurred in the search and rescue mission.

Following the formal sentencing, the pilot appealed the assessment of “indirect costs,” such as general overhead that would have been incurred by the Coast Guard irrespective of its response to the false distress report.  He argued that such ordinary expenses were not “losses” contemplated by 14 USC §88(c).  He did not contest his liability for the cost directly attributed to his criminal actions, which included the actual expenses attributable solely to search and rescue efforts.

With little guidance from prior case law on this issue, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit (based in Cincinnati, Ohio) in United States v. Kumar gave a strict interpretation of the statute and found that it was not limited only to “losses” sustained by the Coast Guard, but rather provided for the recovery of all costs incurred because of the criminal defendant’s actions.  For this reason, the Court of Appeals found that the judgment against the pilot which included the full extent of the costs spent by the Coast Guard, including its indirect overhead expenses, was appropriate.  The appellate court further upheld the judgment requiring the defendant to similarly repay the Canadian Armed Forces.  This aspect of the criminal penalty was not specifically provided for by statute, but was permissible within the trial court’s discretionary sentencing authority.

Note: This article first appeared in WorkBoat magazine, and on WorkBoat’s website.