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On December 4, 2023, in Marquette Transportation Co. Gulf-Inland, LLC v. Navigation Maritime Bulgare JSC, et al.,1 the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that state law—and specifically in this case, Louisiana law—governs the applicable negligence standard and burden of proof for a pilot’s error. The Court’s decision is based upon the exception carved by Congress in 46 U.S.C. § 8501(a).

On January 3, 2019, the M/V STRANDJA and the M/V KIEFFER E. BAILEY collided on the Mississippi River.  With a compulsory pilot aboard, the STRANDJA, facing upstream, was preparing to get underway by heaving her anchors.  This caused the STRANDJA to drift approximately 300 feet outside of the designated anchorage.  The KIEFFER E. BAILEY, an inland tugboat, was pushing six loaded barges downriver.  A collision resulted due to the STRANDJA being outside of the anchorage and not adequately communicating with the KIEFFER E. BAILEY via radio and sound signals.  The KIEFFER E. BAILEY’s barges struck the bulbous bow of the STRANDJA.

Among the many claims asserted between the parties, Marquette Transportation Co. Gulf-Inland, LLC (“Marquette”) brought a claim against the pilot that was aboard the STRANDJA at the time of the collision.  At a jury trial in the Eastern District of Louisiana, it was determined that Marquette was not negligent, Balkan Navigation Ltd. (the owner of the STRANDJA) was negligent, and the pilot was grossly negligent. Balkan Navigation Ltd. and the pilot were each found 50% at fault for the collision.

The pilot appealed contending that the district court erred in its application of the burden required to establish gross negligence.  The district court applied the general maritime law standard, which requires a finding of ordinary negligence by a preponderance of evidence. The alternative standard is the Louisiana statute governing pilot liability, which states that “damages or loss occasioned by the pilot’s errors, omissions, fault, or neglect” must be proven “by clear and convincing evidence that the damages arose from the pilot’s gross negligence or willful misconduct.”2 

Generally, maritime law preempts state law in order to create harmony and consistency across jurisdictions.  Congress, however, created an exception to this rule providing that pilots in “bays, rivers, harbors, and ports of the United States” are regulated by state laws. This power, held by the states, existed prior to the formation of the Constitution and was originally ratified in the Lighthouse Act of 1789.

This case is noteworthy because the Fifth Circuit holds that claims against pilots fit within this exception and that state law determines the applicable negligence standard and burden of proof, rather than general maritime law. Because the lower burden of proof, a preponderance of the evidence, was applied at trial, the Court held that the error was not harmless and remanded for a new trial.4

1  87 F.4th 678 (5th Cir. 2023).

2 La. Stat. Ann. § 34:1137.

3 46 U.S.C. § 8501(a)

4 The Court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for a new trial as to the M/V STRANDJA and its owners, and the pilot.

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