Published: 28 April 2009

We are pleased to report on an important decision by Judge Lemelle of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in the Tintomara case. The decision places significant limitations on the ability of third-party claimants to assert claims under the general maritime law against entities designated as responsible parties and others under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90).  

In July 2008, a barge being towed by the tug Mel Oliver collided in the Mississippi River with the M/T Tintomara, resulting in an oil spill from the barge into the river. The barge owner, American Commercial Lines (ACL), accepted the designation as responsible party for the oil spill under OPA-90 and advertised for third-party claims as required by law. Numerous claims were filed by third parties against ACL, the tug operator, DRD Towing, and our members, the Tintomara owners, under OPA-90 and the general maritime law. Both the tug and barge interests and the Tintomara owners moved to dismiss all general maritime law claims for damages that are otherwise recoverable under OPA-90 on the basis of pre-emption.  

After careful analysis of OPA-90’s legislative history, Judge Lemelle held that “[i]n light of Congress’ intent to minimize piecemeal lawsuits and the mandatory language of OPA discussed earlier, it appears that Claimants should pursue claims covered under OPA only against the responsible party and in accordance with the procedures established by OPA.”   

The decision makes it clear that only after claimants have exhausted their administrative remedies under OPA-90 are they entitled to pursue their claims against the responsible party or any other party in federal court. The effect of Judge Lemelle’s decision is to subject all claims for OPA-90 damages, including claims for clean-up costs, property damage, and economic losses, to the OPA-90 administrative claims procedure, and to channel such claims to the responsible party in the first instance in accordance with Congress’ clear intent in enacting OPA-90. On the brief for the Tintomara interests were David Lawton, Hugh Straub and Michael Butterworth of Skuld’s New Orleans correspondents, Phelps Dunbar.