Sabine Towing & Transportation Co. v. United States

666 F.2d 561, 12 ELR 20176 (1981)

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Sabine Towing & Transportation Co. v. United States

United States Court of Claims
666 F.2d 561, 12 ELR 20176 (1981)

Facts

In March 1975, the Hudson River experienced freshet conditions, that is, heavy flow due to melting snow and rain. The Hudson River experienced similar freshet conditions about 25 percent of the days in that year. Those who navigated the river recognized that freshets washed logs, gravel, and other debris into the river, creating navigational hazards. However, shipping ordinarily continued in freshet conditions. On March 29, a vessel belonging to Sabine Towing & Transportation Company, Inc. (Sabine) (plaintiff) struck an underwater object as it traveled up the Hudson River. One of the vessel’s tanks ruptured, resulting in a spill of about 40,000 gallons of oil. Sabine arranged for the oil to be cleaned up at a cost of over $100,000. Sabine then sued the United States government (defendant) under 33 U.S.C. § 1321(i)(1)(A), which allowed dischargers to recover cleanup costs from the government if the discharge was caused by an act of God. Sabine argued that unknown debris it struck as a result of the freshet conditions was an act of God. Sabine also argued that Congress could not have intended that shippers suspend operations in freshet conditions. Section 1321(i)(1)(A) originated in the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 (WQIA). The legislative history of the WQIA stated that an act of God was an unanticipated, grave natural disaster. The trial judge ruled in Sabine’s favor.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Bennett, J.)

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