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In a recent decision following a six-day bench trial, the Southern District of Texas ruled that shipping giant Maersk was not liable for the death of City of Kemah Police Chief Christopher Reed, who was knocked overboard when his boat caught the wake of the Maersk Idaho in the Houston Ship Channel.[1] Mr. Reed’s widow, Jana, named both Maersk and the Maersk Idaho in her suit, which alleged that the vessel violated 33 C.F.R. § 164.11 (requiring vessels over 1600 GRT to set their speed with consideration of the damage that the wake might cause), Rule 5 (requiring a proper lookout), and Rule 6 (safe speed). She contended that these violations triggered The Pennsylvania Rule and made the actions of the vessel negligence per se. The court found that neither rule applied and held the following:

  • The Plaintiffs failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the Maersk Idaho violated 33 C.F.R. § 164.11, Rule 5, Rule 6 or that the defendants were otherwise negligent or that the defendants’ actions were the legal cause of death.
  • That the defendants had no liability to the family of the decedent.

On the day of the incident, Christopher Reed and his wife, out in their 20-foot fishing boat, crossed the Houston Ship Channel approximately half a mile behind the 958-foot Maersk Idaho. The Maersk Idaho was inbound, making approximately 15 knots. The Reeds safely navigated the Maersk Idaho’s starboard wake field, but Mr. Reed fell overboard and ultimately drowned when their boat struck the Maersk Idaho’s port wake field.

While 33 C.F.R. § 164.11 requires vessels over 1600 gross tons to set their speed with consideration of the damage that the wake might cause, the Court was persuaded by Maersk’s expert and fact witnesses who testified that the Maersk Idaho’s wake was no more than 2.2 feet.[2] Further noting that other vessels safely passed through the Maersk Idaho’s wake without incident, and that even the Reeds safely navigated the Maersk Idaho’s starboard wake field, the Court determined that the Maersk Idaho’s wake was not “excessive, unusual, or otherwise in violation of 33 C.F.R § 164.11.”

The Court also determined that the Maersk Idaho had a dedicated lookout posted on the bow. The vessel was therefore in compliance with Rule 5, which requires “a proper look-out by sight and hearing,” at the time of the incident; and, in any event, “[the decedent] did not fall overboard because of a violation of Rule 5.” Finally, as to the Rule 6 safe speed claim, the Court found that the Plaintiffs failed to rebut testimony from the Houston Pilot who was onboard the Maersk Idaho that day that 15 knots was an appropriate speed considering the other vessel traffic at the time, maneuverability of the ship, etc.

While not related to its final ruling as to negligence and statutory violations, the Court did sanction Maersk for misrepresenting the availability of a witness during trial and for failing to timely produce a video of the Maersk Idaho’s wake taken during a subsequent trip through the Houston Ship Channel. Consequently, the Court excluded the video from evidence, declined to award Maersk taxable court costs (despite prevailing on the merits), and required Maersk to reimburse the Plaintiffs for their share of the trial transcript.

[1] Jana Reed, et al., v. Maersk Line, Limited, In Personam, and M/V Maersk Idaho, No. 3:19-CV-238, 2023 WL 113740 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 5, 2023).

[2] The Plaintiffs’ expert witness testified that the Maersk Idaho’s wake would have been six to eight feet where the Reeds encounter it, however the court found his testimony less credible than that of Maersk’s expert.

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