Photo of Raymond T. WaidPhoto of Alexander J. "Alex" Baynham

It is Work Boat Show time in New Orleans, and yesterday featured a great presentation on marine investigations.  Any maritime lawyer worth her salt will tell you that the best part of the practice is getting that 0200 client call about a casualty, donning your protective gear, and racing to the ship.  No other legal practice offers the opportunity to regularly perform the equivalent of emergency room medicine like maritime law.  Not only is the practice exciting, but there is a great feeling that comes from knowing that your client trusts you enough to rely on you in such a high-stakes situation.

This marine investigation presentation brought together a number of experienced government and private practice lawyers to offer their unique perspectives.  Organized by Sean Pribyl, an ex-Coast Guard lawyer who practices at Blank Rome’s office in Washington D.C., the program was sponsored by the Admiralty Law Section of the Federal Bar Association and the ABA TIPS Admiralty and Maritime Law Committee.  It was an informative hour and a half program, but we’ve distilled it down to a list of takeaways that we really endorse:

  1. The government is very concerned with company safety and environmental policies, and those policies are a key focus in any marine investigation.  One of the best ways to represent your client is to highlight positive aspects of the company and its employees during the investigation.
  2. Do not be an obstructionist, this is the federal government that you are dealing with, not an opposing party or lawyer.  You have no leverage.  As a lawyer, your cooperation and professionalism in this stressful situation will cast your client in a good light and make the investigation go smoother.
  3. If you do have a dispute with a Coast Guard investigator on the vessel, call the lawyers at the local Coast Guard district office and get them involved early.  Often the Coast Guard lawyers can help diffuse the situation and keep the investigation moving in a productive manner.
  4. Request “party in interest” designation early so that you and your client are given maximum participation in the investigative process.  Do not wait for the Coast Guard to independently determine that your company should have a seat at the table.
  5. Keep your eye out for potential criminal implications and act aggressively whenever you spot a risk.  The Coast Guard is unique in that it has a civil and criminal governmental function.  Lawyers have to be on their toes to protect their client’s interest.
  6. Criminal risk requires criminal lawyers.  Do not hesitate to get a specialist involved.  If an investigation goes criminal, it often creates conflicts of interest that require additional counsel.  Every maritime lawyer should have a couple of trusted criminal lawyers on speed dial in case of emergency.
  7. While lawyers add real value in the hours and days after a casualty, clients are best served by talking to their lawyers before everything hits the fan.  Knowing what to expect, having a plan in place, and practicing the plan either through full-blown drills or table-top exercises will pay real dividends when the unexpected occurs at 0200 on a Saturday.

Thank you very much to the panelists – it was a good program.

Laura Beck-Knoll, Chaffe McCall

Dee Taylor, Liskow & Lewis

Emily Greenfield, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Environmental Crimes

Sean Pribyl, Blank Rome

LCDR Damian Yemma,  Legal Advisor to the U.S. Coast Guard Investigations National Center of Expertise

CDR Brian McNamara, U.S. Coast Guard Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, District Eight Legal

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