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Maritime Update: Houston Pilots Escape Liability

On August 7, 2018, the Texas Fourteenth Court of Appeals, in the case Westergren v. Houston Pilots Association, held that the Houston Pilots Association ("HPA") was not liable for a chemical spill resulting from the collision of two vessels on the Houston ship channel.  This opinion, which addresses an issue of first impression, illustrates how difficult it can be to recover damages from a pilots association.

A.  Background

On March 9, 2015, Captain Larry Evans piloted the M/T CARLA MAERSK outbound while Captain George Reeser piloted the M/V CONTI PERIDOT inbound up the Houston ship channel.  While the vessels were underway, heavy fog rolled in and reduced visibility significantly.  As the CARLA MAERSK and the CONTI PERIDOT neared each other just south of Morgan's Point, the CONTI PERIDOT crossed the channel into the path of the CARLA MAERSK and the two collided.  As a result, 88,200 gallons of methyl tertiary butyl ether ("MTBE") spilled from the CARLA MAERSK.  Homeowners living nearby suffered environmental damage to their property and personal injuries.

The homeowners sued the HPA and others, asserting claims under Texas law for negligence, gross negligence, negligent trespass and private nuisance.  The homeowners alleged that the HPA negligently failed to develop and promulgate navigational standards in the ship channel and failed to train and supervise the individual pilots navigating the vessels.

The HPA moved to dismiss the plaintiffs' suit based upon immunity provided by federal maritime law and the Texas Transportation Code.  The trial court granted HPA's motion for summary judgment.

B.   Discussion

The homeowners raised two issues on appeal.  First, whether Texas law provides complete immunity to pilots associations for direct negligence.  Second, whether a genuine issue of material fact exists as to the HPA's status as a partnership under Texas law, and, if so, whether HPA may be held vicariously liable for the actions of its member pilots. 

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the Texas Transportation Code, rather than federal maritime law, provided the HPA immunity.  The Texas Houston Pilots Licensing and Regulatory Act provides that a pilot is not liable "directly or as a member of an organization of pilots" for any claims "arising from an act or omission of another pilot or organization of pilots" that "relates directly or indirectly to pilot services." 

The Court of Appeals found that (1) a judgment against the HPA would result in liability for each of the individual pilots "as a member of an organization of pilots," (2) the homeowners' claims arose from an act or omission of another pilot or an organization of pilots, and (3) the claims "relate directly or indirectly to pilot services."  Thus, under Texas law, the HPA is immune from liability.

C.   Why is This Important?

  1. Many pilots associations enjoy state statutory immunity as well as immunity under the general maritime law.
  2. Pilots associations should be mindful of the affirmative defense of immunity.
  3. Understanding the potential immunity pilots associations enjoy is key when evaluating potential avenues of recovery in the context of a vessel collision involving pilots.

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