The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Jantran, Inc. on Thursday, April 9, 2015.
The Miss Dixie is a cargo ship owned by Jantran, Inc. that operates on the Verdigris River in Oklahoma. While carrying cargo, the Miss Dixie lost power and struck and damaged a lock owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The United States commenced an in personam action against Jantran under § 408 of the Rivers and Harbors Act to recover the costs of the repair. The district court dismissed the Corps’ suit, finding § 408 does not allow in personam damages against a boat owner but rather only allows in rem actions against the vessel that caused the damage.
The Corps appealed, arguing that without an in personam right of action, the United States cannot be fully compensated for its losses, and as a matter of consistency § 408 must therefore contain an implied right to in personam relief. The Tenth Circuit analyzed maritime law, which provides that any party injured by a maritime vessel obtains an automatic lien on the vessel at the time of the accident. The party can then bring an in rem action and foreclose its lien if successful. This method of compensation developed because usually ships traveled far from home, a ship’s captain may be unable to financially compensate the injured party, and the responsible ship owner may be a foreign party unwilling to honor the judgment.
The Tenth Circuit also evaluated the Supreme Court opinion in Wyandotte Transportation Co. v. United States, finding that although Wyandotte allowed in personam actions against a boat owner for damages, the decision construed § 409. However, Wyandotte created a circuit split about whether § 408 also allows in personam actions. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the Sixth Circuit that § 408 does not allow in personam actions.
The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order dismissing the action because nothing in the Rivers and Harbors Act indicates a congressional intent to allow a cause of action against a boat owner.