Fifth Circuit Agrees that a Tugboat is an “Operator” Under OPA


On September 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a ruling interpreting potential liability under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA). In U.S. v. Nature’s Way Marine, LLC, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the holding of the District Court that, under OPA, the owner of a tugboat moving oil barges down the Mississippi which later collided with a bridge, spilling seven thousand gallons of oil, was itself an ”operator” subject to liability under the law.

Nature’s Way Marine, LLC (Nature’s Way) spent almost $3 million cleaning up the spill, and agencies of the federal government spent $792,000 on the cleanup. Nature’s Way submitted a claim for reimbursement in the amount of $2.13 million to the National Pollution Funds Center, arguing that it liability should be limited to the tonnage of it tugboat, and not that of the barges it was towing, as well as being relieved of any liability for the government’s expenditures.

Nature’s Way’s claim was denied by the District Court, because the tugboat was also an “operator” and was also subject to liability under OPA. Under OPA, an “operator” is any person who is operating the vessel.

The Fifth Circuit noted that

“The state does not define ‘operating,’ offering instead only the circular definition that an ‘owner or operator’ is “in the case of a vessel, any person owning, operating, or chartering by demise, the vessel.’ It therefore falls to the court to give the term its ‘ ordinary or natural meaning.'” (Internal citations omitted)

The Fifth Circuit agreed, holding that the District Court’s interpretation of “operator” was consistent with the Supreme Court’s 1998 ruling in U.S. v. Bestfoods. Because the tugboat exercised exclusive navigational control at the time of the collision, it was an “operator” and subject to liability under the law.