"Robins Dry Dock" Rule Alive and Well
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit just reaffirmed the familiar maritime law rule that a plaintiff cannot recover economic loss damages without some kind of physical injury to property.
The facts were simple: the vessel Julie Marie ran into a bridge which connected the communities of Lafitte and Barataria, Lousiana. This seems to have inconvenienced the residents of Barataria, who (if I am reading the map correctly) had to take the long way around to New Orleans. One such resident brought a class action for lost use of property, lost business revenue and other inconvenience-related damages. The vessel's owner moved to dismiss the case. A U.S. district court agreed that the plaintiff had not stated a valid claim, and granted the requested dismissal.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. In an opinion entitled In re Bertucci Contracting Co. (filed March 22, 2013), the court agreed that maritime law does not allow any recovery for this type of loss. The rule dates back to an older Supreme Court case, Robins Dry Dock v. Flint, 275 U.S. 203 (1927). Under Robins Dry Dock, to recover for a maritime casualty such as a collision (or, in this case, an "allision"), the plaintiff must suffer physical damage to some property in which the plaintiff has a "proprietary interest." If a wayward vessel strikes your tour boat and causes damage, you can recover. But if someone else's boat is struck, you can't recover even if you suffer some kind of loss. For example, if the Coast Guard shuts the waterway down in order to investigate, guard against pollution, or look for survivors, the fact that you may lose business as a result does not give you the right to recover. In the Bertucci case, the residents of Barataria were obviously put out by the loss of a nearby bridge; but since none of their own property had been damaged, they had no right under maritime law to sue the Julie Marie's owners. The policy at work here is that the law must draw some limit to a wrongdoer's liability for a maritime accident. Not everyone conceivably affected in some way gets to sue.
The main twist in Bertucci seems to be the argument that the plaintiffs were not maritime actors themselves and should be able to rely on state law, which they claimed was more favorable. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, reasoning that maritime law governed the extent of financial responsibility for a maritime incident, even with respect to losses claimed by land-based interests. Otherwise the limiting principle of Robins Dry Dock would be undone.