No Suit for You: U.S. Eleventh Circuit Prohibits Contribution Claims Against the U.S. Government for Oil Spill Cleanup Costs
Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a decision holding that a ship owner (Savage Services Corporation) could not make a contribution claim against the U.S. government for oil cleanup costs. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower court holding that the U.S. Oil Pollution Act (OPA) does not authorize claims against the government for oil-removal damages and that OPA's comprehensive remedial scheme pre-empts the Suits in Admiralty Act (“SAA”) wherein Congress has generally waived sovereign immunity for most admiralty claims.
In September of 2019, the M/V SAVAGE VOYAGER was transporting oil by pushing two tank barges through an interstate waterway made up of a manmade system of canals, locks, and dams linking the Tennessee River in Mississippi with the Tombigbee River in Alabama. Along the way, the vessel entered a lock/boat lift operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer.
The entire tow was not all the way inside the lock when the lock master began lowering the water level causing one of the barges to get caught on the end of one of the lock’s walls. While the barge was stuck on the wall the water level in the lock was lowered sixty feet causing the barge to be lifted up at a steep angle and then eventually to come falling down from the wall.
This caused a rupture in one of the cargo tanks which allowed crude oil to leak into the lock chamber. Due to the accident, the vessel owner claimed to have suffered USD 4 Million in damages, mostly for cleanup costs, and the owner held the U.S. government solely responsible for the accident, alleging that there was nothing it could have done to prevent the accident.
The Court Decisions
The vessel owner filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama alleging that that lawsuit could be maintained against the United States pursuant to the SAA’s waiver of sovereign immunity. The government moved to dismiss Savage’s oil removal claims, arguing that it had not waived sovereign immunity for such claims.
The district court agreed and denied the vessel owner’s cleanup claims, holding that Congress had enacted OPA to specifically assign responsibility for cleanup costs and in doing so had “expressed its intent to effect an implied repeal of the general sovereign immunity provision in the [SAA] as it pertains to oil-spill cleanup damages." Savage appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit.
The Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, holding that OPA does not create a cause of action for oil spillers to seek contribution from the United States. The court found that while OPA does allow contribution claims for cleanup costs, this is limited to claims against other “persons”. The court noted that the definition of “persons” in OPA includes any "individual, corporation, partnership, association, State, municipality, commission, or political subdivision of a State, or any interstate body."
The court noted that OPA’s definition of “persons” does not specifically include the United States and compared this definition of “persons” to those contained in other U.S. pollution acts which contain explicit waivers of sovereign immunity by the government. The court also noted that whereas OPA contains a specific, comprehensive remedial regime, the waiver of sovereign immunity in the SAA is very general. The court relied on the rule of statutory construction that typically a more specific statute will pre-empt a more general statute and found it to be especially true in this case since OPA had been enacted more recently than the SAA.
Based on all of these factors, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower court and held that “OPA, in short, doesn't create a cause of action by which oil spillers can seek contribution from the United States for oil-removal costs.”
In light of this decision, our Members should be aware that contribution claims against the U.S. government for oil cleanup costs will not be entertained in the Eleventh Circuit (Alabama, Florida, Georgia).