On April 18, 2013, the M/V Dale Heller attempted to navigate its fourteen-barge tow past the Marseilles Dam on the Illinois River during a high-water event. Other maritime vessels agreed to assist the M/V Dale Heller in this navigation attempt, including the M/V Loyd Murphy, operated by Inland Marine Service, Inc. and owned by American Commercial Barge Lines, LLC. While attempting the transit, the M/V Dale Heller’s tow broke apart and seven of its barges either allided with the dam or sank upriver from it. Subsequent to this incident, the river waters overtopped the bank and the City of Marseilles, Illinois flooded. Following the casualty, SMBP filed a limitation action on behalf of Inland Marine and ACBL. More than 200 claims were filed against them, including claims by the City of Marseilles, the Marseilles Elementary School District, and numerous residents and property owners in Marseilles. The USA also filed claim for damages to the Dam and related structures, estimated to exceed $30 Million.
The SMBP Maritime Group centered its defense on the application of the dominant mind doctrine, a theory in general maritime law holding that “when a helper tug merely furnishes power in obedience to orders from the primary tug without any negligence on its part, it should be exonerated from all liability for damages to the tow.” SMBP was able to secure summary judgment on behalf of ACBL as the owner of the M/V Loyd Murphy. The Court also found, as a matter of law, that the Ingram vessel—the M/V Dale Heller—was in fact the dominant mind. These pre-trial victories, together with the compelling opinions advanced by its team of specialized expert witnesses, allowed the SMBP Maritime Group to secure a favorable “cost of defense” settlement on behalf of its client on all remaining claims, avoiding the four-week Phase 1 trial scheduled to begin on September 21, 2016, as well as subsequent trials on the issues of causation and damages. A well fought, hard earned victory!