Materials Vessel Operator Provides to U.S. Coast Guard to Further Agency’s Marine Casualty Investigation Not Exempt From Discovery by Injured Claimant

Patricia Guest, one of about 4,500 passengers and crew aboard the CARNIVAL SPLENDOR cruise liner in November 2010, allegedly slipped and fell, injuring her shoulder. She claimed in a personal injury lawsuit against Carnival Corporation her accident occurred while the vessel, including its stabilizers, was disabled and adrift following an engine room fire and that the ship “violently lurched,” causing her fall.

Cruise liner CARNIVAL SPLENDOR

Cruise liner CARNIVAL SPLENDOR

The U.S. Coast Guard conducted an investigation into the engine room fire and the failure of the ship’s automatic CO2 fire suppression system to deploy. Guest’s lawyers, as part of her lawsuit’s discovery process, asked Carnival for photographs it had taken, communications between it and the Coast Guard with respect to this investigation, and reports, memoranda, and documents Carnival had submitted to the Coast Guard. In response, Carnival claimed a federal law protected it from having to turn over the materials it had given to the Coast Guard.

The federal statute in question, codified at 46 U.S. Code Section 6308, is entitled “Information barred in legal proceedings.” It states, in pertinent part:

“…no part of a [U.S. Coast Guard] report of a marine casualty investigation…including findings of fact, opinions, recommendations, deliberations, or conclusions, shall be admissible as evidence or subject to discovery in any civil or administrative proceedings, other than an administrative proceeding initiated by the United States” and “[a]ny member or employee of the Coast Guard investigating a marine casualty…shall not be subject to deposition or other discovery, or otherwise testify in such proceedings relevant to a marine casualty investigation, without the permission of the Secretary [of the Department of Homeland Security].”

A Coast Guard regulation, appearing at 46 C.F.R. § 4.07-1(b), states the “investigations of marine casualties and accidents and the determinations made [by this agency] are for the purpose of taking appropriate measures for promoting safety of life and property at sea, and are not intended to fix civil or criminal responsibility.”

In Guest v. Carnival Corp., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 184936 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 7, 2012), a U.S. Magistrate Judge found that when reading Section 6308 together with Section 4.07-1(b), “it is clear that the scope of the statutory protection [of Section 6308] is limited to the Coast Guard’s investigative report, and anything included within that report, in order to avoid having the Coast Guard’s investigative report and its conclusions influence the litigation process.” But, the Court found, Section 6308 did not protect vessel owners like Carnival from having to hand-over to parties like Guest the materials Carnival had provided to the Coast Guard in furtherance of the Coast Guard’s investigation. The Court wrote:

“Ultimately, the issue before this Court is whether or not the material that Defendant produced to the Coast Guard is precluded from discovery pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 6308(a). Defendant has failed to provide the Court with any compelling support for that proposition, and this Court has been unable to find the same independently. In addition, a review of the applicable case law unequivocally demonstrates that 46 U.S.C. § 6308(a) extends to the specific Coast Guard investigative report and, arguably, any other Coast Guard document produced in the course of its investigation that contains any findings of fact, opinion or conclusions – not, however, a litigant’s own documents. Accordingly, Defendant’s objections are overruled…..Defendant shall produce copies of all documents, photographs and any other materials provided to any governmental agency, classification society or flag state, including but not limited to the U.S. Coast Guard, in connection with the fire; the failure of the fire suppression systems; and the loss of propulsion aboard the vessel. Defendant shall produce the above-described documents within seven (7) days of this Order.”

About two months later, the parties announced to the Court the case had settled.

Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents crewmen of towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels, as well as passengers aboard cruise and excursion boats and ships, primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, but also all over the inland waterways.  If you have questions about your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, feel free to contact us at 877-404-6529, 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.

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