Kirby Wins Bench Verdict, $17 Million On Collision, Spill

On July 8, a federal district judge in Houston exonerated Kirby Inland Marine from any liability or fault in a May 2019 collision in the Houston Ship Channel. The collision between one of its tank barges and an oceangoing vessel, the Genesis River, resulted in the Kirby barge releasing 473,600 gallons of reformate, a gasoline blending stock, into the channel. The bench ruling was a finding of fact and law that the operator of the Genesis River holds 100 percent of the liability, making any subsequent appeal unlikely.

Judge Jeffrey Brown of the United States District Court of the Southern District of Texas, Galveston Division, ruled that the captain of the Genesis River failed to disclose to the two harbor pilots that his boat had poor handling and was recommended to go no faster than 6 to 8 knots within the Houston Ship Channel. The Genesis River’s crew also shut down its ECDIS electronic chart system instead of placing it on standby as the pilots requested.

Traveling at 12 knots, the 754-foot-long Genesis River began uncontrolled swinging during a passing maneuver with the Kirby towboat Voyager, pushing two barges of reformate. The Genesis River’s bow ultimately sliced one of the two barges almost in half, spilling its cargo.

Judge Brown wrote, “Based on the arguments and evidence submitted at trial, the court concludes that the Genesis River’s negligence and violation of Rules 6, 7 and 9 of the Inland Navigation Rules caused the collision with the Voyager and her two barges.” The Genesis River’s negligence was the “sole cause,” and because Inland Navigation Rules were violated, limits on liability of the Oil Pollution Act do not apply. The judge found that “as the party solely at fault for the collision, the Genesis River interests are liable to Kirby for $17,398,488.” According to Kirby, it suffered $7,936,897 in collision damages and $9,461,591 in spill-response damages. 

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The bench ruling followed a March finding by the National Transportation Safety Board on the same incident, which also blamed the collision on the decision of the river pilot to transit the wide-beam, deep-draft Genesis River in “navigation full” mode at “sea speed,” thereby subjecting the vessel to greater hydrodynamic forces than had it been traveling at slower maneuvering speeds through the shallow and narrow lower Houston Ship Channel.