Judge denies tugboat owner's effort to sue government

By Jeff Amy, Associated Press

A federal judge ruled Friday that a tugboat company can't countersue the government for payment for cleaning up a 2013 oil spill on the Mississippi River.


JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Friday that a tugboat company can't countersue the government for payment for cleaning up a 2013 oil spill on the Mississippi River.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves refused to allow a challenge to an earlier U.S. Coast Guard administrative decision denying a request by Nature's Way Marine to be reimbursed up to $2.1 million of oil spill cleanup costs.

A tugboat owned by the Theodore, Alabama, company pushed a barge into the Vicksburg railroad bridge in January 2013, spilling 7,100 gallons of crude oil.

The federal government sued Nature's Way Marine, its insurer Great American Insurance Group, and barge owner Third Coast Towing in January, demanding $793,000 in oil removal costs. The government is also demanding civil fines, which could be as high as $896,000 if officials can prove Nature's Way acted with willful misconduct or gross negligence. Nature's Way denies its actions meet that standard.

The federal lawsuit alleged that the tugboat pilot — Yancy Guidry — hadn't navigated under the Vicksburg bridge in several years. The suit said Guidry realized he wasn't correctly lined up to pass under the preferred bridge section and instead aimed to pass under a different section. One fuel barge hit a bridge pier, broke away from the tugboat and drifted downriver. A second fuel barge also hit the bridge, gashing its stern and leaking crude oil. The oil discolored the water and left sludge on both the Louisiana and Mississippi banks.

"Mr. Guidry did not maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and risk of collision," the suit stated.

Nature's Way argued that not only was it not liable for the government's expenses, the government should pay the company $2.1 million in pollution cleanup funds, or $1.3 million after subtracting government costs. That's because the tug owner and its insurer say liability for the tug should have been limited to $854,000, but in reality it spent $3 million, making the company due for repayment from the National Pollution Funds Center.

The government said the right liability limit is the one assigned to the barge — $4.3 million. Thus, the government argued that the companies haven't reached their liability limit and could be sued for the government's expenses in responding to the spill.

The current suit has spawned a welter of countersuits, with Nature's Way and Third Coast suing each other and Great American suing a separate insurer.

In an earlier suit, Nature's Way paid $2 million to Third Coast and the barge owner's insurer for damages.

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