Impact of dredging on maritime law

In 1875 the General Moultrie was the first suction dredge built in the United States and was used in the Charleston River – until it sank within a year. Around the same time, the City of Houston and other port cities formed companies like the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company to build special purpose vessels to clear and connect waterways for commercial shipping traffic. Towards the end of the 19th century, the cutter suction dredge made its appearance and effectively excavated and maintained water channels. The Foreign Dredge Act of 1906 prohibited vessels built or chartered abroad from dredging in American waters.

Since its inception, it can easily be said that dredging has been vital to the security and economy of the United States. Current dredging maintains the navigable depths of our inland ports and waterways, restores wetland ecology, and rebuilds exposed beaches along state lines.

The US domestic shipping system is said to represent a quarter of the US economy. A lack of maintenance dredging and increased vessel depth left most U.S. ports at full depth and width only 35% of the time. Recently, the US Congress invested $10 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to dredge the ports. The Corps of Engineers also announced the dredging of the Mississippi River from its mouth at Baton Rouge, Louisiana to provide a draft of 50 feet for 256 miles of deep-water trade. Each additional foot of draft equates to approximately $1 million in freight per vessel, impacting our national economy by $127 million per year.

While the impact of dredging on our economy is widely known, the impact of dredging on the development of general maritime law through the decisions of the United States Supreme Court is often overlooked. Our American dredging industry has impacted both our laws and our economy. Supreme Court dredging cases have involved issues of patent, labor and jurisdiction and have shaped general maritime law since its inception. An overview of Supreme Court cases shows the varied impact:

1883 – Atlantic Works v. Brady
A dispute arose over the construction of a dredge and the validity of a patent for a component part. The Supreme Court has ruled that the design of our patent laws was to reward those who made a “substantial new and useful discovery” which also made progress in the useful arts.

1907 – Ellis vs. Eastern Dredging
Members of a dredging crew were not subject to the eight-hour work limitations for laborers and mechanics, as set out in a wage and hour law. Currently, our Fair Labor Standards Act provides an exception for seafarers.

1920 – United States against Atlantic dredging
In a dispute over a government contract, appealed by the Court of Claims, the Supreme Court ruled that the private contractor could have reasonably relied on government representations in its dredging agreement as if they were guarantee.

1923 – Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Kierejewski
The Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts had maritime jurisdiction over an alleged wrongful death case under a “locality test” analysis and that state law actions could not prevail over maritime law.

1932 – Brooklyn v. Eastern Dist. Terminal
A government dredge collided with a tug. Mutual fault has been established. The Supreme Court has considered the issue of loss of use/demurrage damage and a shipowner’s duty to mitigate damages resulting from a collision – the “replacement ship” doctrine is still used in reviewing claims for loss of use.

1943 – O’Donnell v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co.
A sailor was injured while repairing a dredge ashore. The Supreme Court extended the Jones Act remedy to him since the sailor was in the service of the ship even though he had not been injured on the ship. The locality criterion did not determine the remedy, but rather the extent of the use.

1943 – Standard Dredging Corp. v. Murphy and Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Huffman
Both of these decisions examined whether state laws regarding the collection of taxes are constitutional and enforceable in maritime commerce situations and highlighted the tension between maritime and state jurisdictions and laws.

1956 – Senko v. Lacrosse Dredging Corp.
A handyman performing general maintenance on a dredge was injured in an explosion and sued under the Jones Act. The Court held that a jury had wide discretion to determine, based on the facts, whether a “handyman” should be considered a “crew member” for purposes of the Jones Act statute. The three-member dissent asked if Senko was more or less permanently attached to a trading vessel. This debate is still current.

1958 – Kernan c. Am. Dredging Co.
A fire broke out on a barge following a violation of the law. In a rare case, the Supreme Court found “per se negligence” (where there is a rebuttable presumption of fault at law where there is a violation of law related to the injury). Negligence per se still exists under general maritime law.

1994 – Am. Dredging vs. Miller
Generally, state law only applies where it does not alter substantive maritime law. A personal injury lawsuit was filed in state court under the Jones Act and the Suitors’ Savings Clause. The Supreme Court held that federal law does not prevail over state law regarding the doctrine of forum non conveniens when the defendant has sought to transfer it to another venue. This doctrine asks whether the chosen location where the lawsuit was filed is convenient for the defendant or whether the case can be moved to a different location. This doctrine does not fall under substantive maritime law, but procedural.

1995 – Grubart vs. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co.
Using a locality test analysis, the Supreme Court found Admiralty jurisdiction where pile driving in the Chicago River caused a tunnel to collapse and flood the basements of several downtown buildings -City of Chicago.

2005 – Stewart vs. Dutra Constr. Co.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a bucket dredge and its tender were considered a “vessel” for the purposes of a personal injury claim. The Court gave a broad definition of “vessel” as defined in 1 USC 3 regarding “anything that floats”. This decision is now examined in the light of Lozman, where the Court ruled that a barge was not a ship.

2009 – Atlantic Sounding, Inc. v. Townsend
An injured sailor is provided with no-fault maintenance and recovery when illness or injury manifests while in the service of a ship. The Supreme Court allowed punitive damages for a Jones Act employer’s willful or arbitrary failure to pay child support and cure in a narrow 5-4 decision. Punitive damages are not permitted under the Jones Act, but exist under general maritime law in their own right.

2019 – Dutra v Batterton
Ten years after Townsend and in a 6-3 decision, punitive damages were denied to a Jones Act sailor alleging both negligence and that the dredge was unseaworthy under maritime law general. The Supreme Court has ruled that where an action under the Jones Act is joined to an action under general maritime law for unseaworthiness, punitive damages are not allowed. This is distinct from a maintenance and curative claim based solely on general maritime law.

The unique nature of dredging, its equipment, and its personnel have created legal issues that have reached the United States Supreme Court nearly every decade since its inception. In particular, the Supreme Court looked at what a ship is at sea, what is the scope of Jones Act coverage when individuals have liabilities ashore and ashore, how and when damages punitive measures can be assessed for people injured on ships, how state laws affect operations on navigable waters, and how far maritime jurisdiction can extend when maritime operations cause injuries on land. Dredging is not only vital to the US economy and its security, but also to the development of general principles of maritime law.