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Ocean Barge Transport Co. v. Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corp.

February 6, 1984; As Amended February 10, 1984.

OCEAN BARGE TRANSPORT CO.
v.
HESS OIL VIRGIN ISLANDS CORP. MINTEC/INTERNATIONAL, A DIVISION OF BARBER-GREEN COMPANY, APPELLANT



Appeal From the District Court of the Virgin Islands Division of St. Croix

Author: Hunter

Before: HUNTER, WEIS and ROSENN, Circuit Judges

Opinion OF THE COURT

HUNTER, Circuit Judge:

1. This products liability case arose from the collapse of a crane boom onto the deck of the barge Pavel. The owner and operater of the barge, Ocean Barge Transport Company ("Ocean Barge"), sued the crane's owner-operator, Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corporation ("HOVIC"), and its manufacturer, Mintec/International ("Mintec"), in the District Court of the Virgin Islands, alleging admiralty jurisdiction. After a trial to the bench, the judge concluded that the crane was defective and that Mintec was wholly liable for Ocean Barge's injuries. Mintec appeals. Because we believe that the trial judge erred in his application of the principles of strict liability, we will vacate the judgment below and remand the case.

I.

2. In 1977, HOVIC contracted to purchase from Mintec a sulphur loading facility for HOVIC's St. Croix refinery. The facility, which included the crane, was designed to load sulphur from land to ships via conveyors. Mintec contracted to design and prepackage the facility and to supervise its installation. HOVIC was responsible for the daily operation, repair and maintenance of the facility.

3. On November 20, 1978, the Pavel arrived at the sulphur loading dock of HOVIC's St. Croix refinery to be loaded with sulphur. After the loading had been completed, and as the crane's boom was being lifted up towards its stowed position, the boom collapsed onto the Pavel causing extensive property damage.

4. On November 22, 1978, personnel from HOVIC and Mintec met to determine the cause of the accident. It was agreed that two of the four steel bolts which fastened one side of the hoist drum assembly to the pillow block base*fn1 came loose immediately before the accident. It was also agreed that this loosening caused the hoist drum assembly, which was designed to raise and lower the boom by winding and unwinding cable, to be pulled from both the cradle and the pillow block base to which it had been attached. The hoist cable was then able to unwind, allowing the boom to descend rapidly onto the deck of the Pavel. No agreement, however, could be reached on the critical issue of why the two bolts came loose. HOVIC contended that the bolts came loose because of a defect in the crane, while Mintec argued that the entry of a foreign object into the gear box exerted the pressure which caused the loosening.

5. Ocean Barge originally brought suit only against HOVIC, alleging negligence. HOVIC then filed a third-party complaint against Mintec, proceeding under alternative theories of strict liability and negligence, alleging that the crane had been defectively designed. Ocean Barge subsequently amended its complaint to assert a direct claim against Mintec based upon the allegations set forth in the HOVIC third-party complaint.

6. The trial lasted from March 15, 1982 to March 19, 1982. After the trial, the judge concluded, "Because the evidence concerning the failed bolts strongly suggests a defect in the design and/or assembly of the machinery at issue, Mintec bears a substantial burden in seeking to establish that an affirmative act and/or omission on the part of the operators of the machinery (HOVIC or its agents) was the sole proximate cause of the accident." (emphasis added). Finding that Mintec had adduced no evidence conclusively establishing HOVIC's negligence, the trial judge held Mintec wholly liable for Ocean Barge's damages of $41,415.30. He also found that HOVIC was not at fault and that Ocean Barge was not contributorily negligent. The judge subsequently awarded attorney's fees in favor of Ocean Barge and HOVIC, and against Mintec.

7. Mintec appeals from this judgment. We believe that the trial judge erred in inferring the existence of a defect solely from the fact of the bolts' failure and consequently in not requiring plaintiff to meet its burden of negating other reasonable explanations for the failure. Accordingly, we will reverse the judgment below and remand the case.

II.

8. Initially, we note that this action is within the admiralty jurisdiction of the district court.*fn2 We note also that it is no longer seriously contested that "the legal theories of strict liability in tort now so prevalently applied on land can be applied to suits in admiralty." Pan-Alaska Fisheries, Inc. v. Marine Construction & Design Co., 565 F.2d 1129, 1134 (9th Cir. 1977); see also Lewis v. Timco, Inc., 697 F.2d 1252 (5th Cir. 1983); Lindsay v. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corp., 460 F.2d 631, 635 (8th Cir. 1972); Schaeffer v. Michigan-Ohio Navigation Co., 416 F.2d 217, 221 (6th Cir. 1969). Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts has been embraced in federal maritime law as the best expression of this doctrine as it is generally applied. See, e.g., Pan-Alaska Fisheries, 565 F.2d at 1134; Lindsay, 460 F.2d at 636; Ohio Barge Line, Inc. v. ...


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