HOUSTON – The Houston Pilots Association was declared immune of liability in an appeal of a ruling regarding an accident that involved two vessels piloted by two of its members.
Texas 14th Court of Appeals Judge J. Brett Busby issued an 18-page ruling Aug. 7 reaffirming the previous decision by the 234th District Court in Harris County that granted immunity of liability to the association against Gordon Westergren and seven other homeowners who sued over allegations of negligence and environmental damages.
In his ruling, Busby mentioned that "the Houston Pilots Licensing and Regulatory Act provides that a pilot is not liable, either directly or as a member of an organization of pilots, for any claim that (1) arises from an act or omission of another pilot or organization of pilots, and (2) relates directly or indirectly to pilot services."
Mentioning the Texas Transportation Code Section 66.082, Busby also said that the "Section 66.082, rather than federal maritime law, governs the claims asserted by appellants and provides Houston Pilots immunity from liability."
On March 9, 2015, Larry Evans and George Reeser were captaining two vessels along the Houston Ship Channel, a 55-mile pathway that runs from Galveston to the Port of Houston, whose main channel is 530 feet wide.
As described in the ruling, "when heavy fog rolled in and reduced visibility significantly, Houston Pilots suspended pilot boardings of inbound ships."
Despite the suspension, two vessels continued in their journey: the Carla Maersk and Conti Peridot, piloted by Evans and Reeser, respectively.
"As the Carla Maersk and the Conti Peridot neared each other just south of Morgan’s Point, the Conti Peridot crossed the channel into the path of the Carla Maersk and the two collided," the ruling said.
The ruling mentioned that methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) "spilled from the cargo of the Carla Maersk," and that the homeowners "contend that the spill reached their properties, requiring a significant amount of remediation and causing personal injury to two of them," claiming that a total of 88,200 gallons of the substance were spilled, "causing environmental damage to their property and sickening two of them."
After being sued by the homeowners for negligence, Houston Pilots moved for summary judgment, stating that "pilot associations are immune from vicarious liability or direct liability related to the alleged negligence of its pilots," and that "as an unincorporated association of independent contractor pilots, it has no legal existence separate from its individual pilots."
The district court ruled in favor of the association with a summary judgment.
Based on the 46 U.S.C. Section 8501(a) statute, which said that "pilots in the bays, rivers, harbors, and ports of the United States shall be regulated only in conformity with the laws of the states," Busby's ruling considered the Texas Transportation Code as the legal basis for the immunity, pointing that "regulation of pilotage on the Houston Ship Channel is expressly left to the state."
After examining the homeowners' claims that the pilots' acts were not considered pilot services per state law, Busby said in the ruling that the law "applies to acts or omissions that relate 'directly or indirectly' to pilot services," and that "formulating and implementing ship movement strategies for pilots’ use in the navigable waters of this state" relates to "the acts of a pilot in conducting a vessel through” those waters."
Texas 14th Court of Appeals case number 14-17-00046-CV