The opinion of the court was delivered by: NORDBERG
JOHN A. NORDBERG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
At approximately 11:50 p.m. on December 1, 1984, the towboat M/V
Sunshine was proceeding upstream on the Illinois River pushing a tow of eleven barges when it ran aground on a sandbar and, in the process of trying to extricate itself, hit a cofferdam situated on the north bank, causing $ 850,000 in damage. The owner of the cofferdam, Illinois Constructors Corporation (ICC), brought this admiralty suit against the owner of the vessel, Logan Transportation, Inc. (Logan), alleging that the pilot of the tow was negligent and that his negligence could be imputed to the owner. Logan concedes that the pilot was negligent, but claims that his negligence was not the sole proximate cause of the allision. According to the defendant, ICC had failed to install appropriate lighting and reflective tape on the cofferdam, as required by United States Coast Guard regulations; had ICC complied with these regulations, the defendant maintains, the pilot would have been able to sight the cofferdam and thereby avoid the allision. Therefore, the defendant asks that liability be apportioned on a comparative basis, with Logan deemed to be 60% at fault and the plaintiff 40%. In the alternative, the defendant asserts that the pilot's negligence cannot be imputed to it and that under well-established admiralty principles it is entitled to limit its liability to the value of the M/V Sunshine and its tow.
This action came to trial before this court, without a jury. The court observed each witness, took extensive and detailed contemporaneous trial notes of the testimony of each witness, and made specific determinations of the credibility of each witness and the weight to be given to the testimony.
The court has drawn what it believes to be the correct reasonable inferences from this evidence and has evaluated the applicable legal principles.
Based on all the testimony presented, the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony, the exhibits received in evidence, and the law governing this case, the court concludes that the pilot's negligence was the sole proximate cause of the allision and, therefore, that the owner is not entitled to exoneration. The court holds, however, that the owner itself was not negligent and therefore is entitled to limit its liability to the value of the vessel. Accordingly, the court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a).
The plaintiff, ICC, is an Illinois corporation with its principal place of business in Cook County, Illinois. ICC is, among other things, a general contractor for bridge and pier construction throughout Illinois and the midwestern states. At the time of the accident, ICC was under contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation as a general contractor for the construction of a bridge pier that would support a bridge spanning the Illinois River in LaSalle County, Illinois. Construction of the bridge pier involved the use of a "cofferdam," a watertight enclosure built into the riverbed and then pumped dry to facilitate the building of the pier. Made of steel sheeting and braced with steel beams, the cofferdam was located on the north bank of the river.
The defendant, Logan, is a Mississippi corporation with its principal place of business in Greenville, Mississippi.
Logan has been in the business of transporting materials on the western rivers, including the Illinois River, for approximately thirty years. At the time of the accident Hilman Logan was President of Logan Transportation, but he had assigned the responsibility of the day-to-day operation of the company to Donnie Willingham, the Marine Superintendent of Operations. Willingham's responsibilities included hiring and training competent crews and ensuring that Logan's vessels, including the M/V Sunshine, were seaworthy and properly equipped for the job.
Logan's policy was to delegate navigational decisions, including the posting of lookouts, directly to the captains and pilots of its vessels, who were aware of the on-the-scene conditions. Willingham, however, was always available by VHF radio for consultation and recommendations; if there was a problem on any of Logan's vessels, each captain and pilot knew that he could call Willingham by radio and discuss the problem. Logan's policy of delegating navigational decisions to the pilothouse personnel, rather than attempting to run the boat from the office, conformed with the general practice in the towboat industry.
B. The M/V Sunshine and Its Crew
Constructed in 1966, the M/V Sunshine is a diesel-powered, triple screw inland river towboat of steel construction, weighing 420 gross tons and measuring approximately 100 feet in length and 30 feet in width, with a draft of approximately 9 feet forward and aft. It is powered by three diesel engines with a total horsepower of 2700.
Triple screw vessels such as the M/V Sunshine are easier to steer and maneuver than single or double screw vessels;
the M/V Sunshine, however, differs from other triple screw vessels in three respects. First, unlike the engines on other vessels, the M/V Sunshine 's engines are not aligned side-by-side; instead, two of the engines are lined up opposite each other on the port and starboard sides, and the center engine is four to five feet forward. Second, the M/V Sunshine carries two flanking rudders on the outside wheels only (with none on the center wheel), rather than carrying two flanking rudders on each wheel. Finally, the vessel's so-called "chimed hull" is not as wide or as long as those of other vessels. These minor differences, however, did not affect detrimentally the M/V Sunshine's handling, maneuverability, or power. In fact, the M/V Sunshine's 2700 horsepower far exceeded the average for inland river towboats (approximately 1800-2200 horsepower), and its hull design allowed more water to get to the wheels, thereby providing for better steering and backing capability.
Furthermore, Logan's vessels in general, and the M/V Sunshine in particular, were relatively clean and well maintained, and Willingham always responded quickly to any problem that would affect the safety of the vessel. At the time of the allision, all equipment and systems aboard the vessel were operating properly, including all electronic equipment -- such as the radiotelephone,
radar, and swing meter -- as well the steering system and main propulsion. On December 1, 1984, the M/V Sunshine and its freight then pending had a stipulated value of $ 200,000.
In addition to maintaining mechanically sound vessels, Logan also hired and trained competent crews to man the vessels. On the date of the accident the crew of the M/V Sunshine included the captain, Perry Wolfe; the pilot, Joe C. Williams, Sr.; the mate, Donnie Tacker; the chief engineer, Jerry Johnson; the assistant engineer, Joe Tingle; and three other deck hands and a cook.
Perry Wolfe was acting as captain aboard the M/V Sunshine the night of the allision. He began working on the rivers as a deckhand in 1957 and by 1961 was piloting vessels. For the next twenty-five years he worked for Logan on and off, and continuously from 1981 until Logan discontinued doing business in September 1987.
Joe Williams, who was piloting the vessel at the time of the allision, had a pilot's license that permitted him to navigate the western and inland rivers, including the Illinois River. Williams began steering on the Illinois River in 1967 and has operated primarily on the Illinois River for all but two years since that date. Williams was quite familiar with the M/V Sunshine, having worked on the vessel for approximately two years while at Logan and approximately two years when it was named the M/V Hiawatha.9 In addition, Williams was familiar with the Illinois River in general and with the LaSalle Bridge area (including the sandbar) and the construction site in particular, having navigated safely past the area many times by the time of the accident.
In 1984 alone Williams piloted the M/V Sunshine northbound through the LaSalle Bridge area five times and southbound four times; for example, Williams safety navigated southbound through the general area on September 24, 1984; northbound through the area on November 8, 1984; and southbound through the area on November 23, 1984. In fact, given that construction of the cofferdam began in April or May 1984, Williams navigated the vessel and tow safely past the specific site three times: northbound on May 16, 1984; southbound on June 3, 1984; and northbound on June 12, 1984.
In short, Williams had extensive experience on the Illinois River in general and was very knowledgeable in particular about the construction underway at the time of the accident. Williams' familiarity with the Illinois River and the M/V Sunshine provided Logan with the opportunity of having not only an experienced navigator to pilot the vessel, but also a pilot who knew the vessel and how it handled.
The chief engineer, Jerry Johnson, was responsible for the general upkeep of the M/V Sunshine. Johnson had approximately ten to twelve years of engineering experience and was fully capable of handling the maintenance and repair of the vessel. Finally, the remaining crew members were experienced and fully capable of performing their job duties.
C. The Scene of the Allision
1. Conditions on the Illinois River
On December 1, 1984, the Illinois River in the vicinity of the cofferdam had an elevation of approximately 442 feet. The pool stage for the Peoria pool is 440 feet, which made the river at this point approximately two feet above pool at the time of the incident.
This elevation, however, is considered to be within normal limits, and there was no indication of any hazardous conditions near the site at the time of the incident. The estimated river current at the time was approximately 1-1 1/2 m.p.h., with clear visibility and good weather conditions.
All upbound river traffic in this area encounters a sharp bend to the right, extending from the Shippingsport Bridge (Mile 224.7) to the I.C. Railroad Bridge (approximately Mile 225.5) to the cofferdam (Mile 225.7) and beyond to approximately Mile 226.5. Between the cofferdam on the north bank (located outside the navigable channel) and the south bridge pier lay approximately 590 feet of navigable water.
Between the I.C. Railroad Bridge and the cofferdam is a well-known sandbar situated on the right descending bank at the mouth of the Little Vermilion River, which flows into the Illinois River at approximately Mile 225.6. The configuration of the sandbar varies, depending upon the conditions of the river; consequently, the Coast Guard normally marks the sandbar with black buoys. On the night of the incident, however, there were no black buoys marking the sandbar, and there was only one red buoy marking the left descending shore in the vicinity of the job site.
The cofferdam was located along the right descending bank and was outside of the navigable channel. Constructed of reinforced steel sheeting driven vertically into the riverbed, the cofferdam was approximately 129 feet long and 45.5 feet wide, with the longer side running roughly parallel to the river bank.
Prior to the construction of the cofferdam, the Coast Guard had issued to ICC certain guidelines and conditions. The primary guideline required that "all work . . . be so conducted that the free navigation of the waterway [would] not be unreasonably interfered with." In addition, further guidelines mandated that "all temporary structures . . . be marked with lights, reflective material and buoys as prescribed by the United States Coast Guard." Specifically, these guidelines required that the upstream and downstream channelward corners of the cofferdam be marked with red lights showing a horizontal arch of 360 degrees and be of sufficient candle power so as to be visible against the background lighting at a distance of at least 2000 yards 90% of the nights of the year. In addition, the upstream and downstream channelward sides of the cofferdam had to be marked with red reflectors installed near the top of the cofferdam to reflect effectively the searchlight of an approaching vessel. ICC's responsibility, however, did not cease upon installation of the lights and reflectors, for it had to inspect and maintain all lights and reflectors to ensure that they were properly displayed.
Although the cofferdam originally may have had reflective tape or paint, by the time of the allision any strips of red reflective tape had peeled off, and the fluorescent paint had been affected by rust on the steel sheeting and, therefore, was not reflective. Despite the lack of reflective paint or tape, though, the cofferdam nevertheless was properly illuminated. The structure was lighted by two red or amber steady-burn battery lights,
located on the upstream and downstream corners, that were visible from 2000 yards at night and, therefore, were of sufficient intensity and brightness to satisfy the Coast Guard requirements. In fact, not only were the lights visible from the guardhouse located across the river on the south bank,
but they also could be seen at night by motorists crossing the Shippingsport Bridge, which was approximately one mile away from the cofferdam.
At the time of the allision, the cofferdam was surrounded by two crane barges, several small deck barges, and a work boat. In addition, the M/V Becky R. (a green and white boat) was ...