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Eleventh Circuit Holds that the Oil Pollution Act Shields Federal Government From Liability

On Tuesday, February 8, 2022, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the Southern District of Alabama’s dismissal of admiralty claims against the United States for oil-removal damages holding first that Oil Pollution Act of 1990’s (“OPA”), 33 U.S.C.S. § 2701 et. seq., does not authorize a claim against the federal government, and second, the OPA’s comprehensive remedial scheme displaced the Government’s sovereign immunity waiver in the Suits in Admiralty Act of 1920 (“SAA”). See Savage Servs. Corp. v. United States, Slip Op. No. 21-10745 (11th Cir. Feb. 8, 2022).

The SAA, 46 U.S.C. § 30901 et. seq., was first enacted in 1920 and expanded in 1960 to permit admiralty claims to be brought against the United States.  Congress passed the OPA in 1990 in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which saw millions of gallons of oil pour into the waters off the coast of Alaska. The OPA sets out a comprehensive scheme that apportions liability for oil-cleanup costs and damages, and it defines the responsible party in any oil spill as the person owning, operating, or demise chartering the vessel. Responsible parties are strictly liable, in the first instance, for the removal costs and damages that result from any oil discharged from its vessel, but OPA also provides that  responsible vessel owners may  seek contribution against any other person, defined in OPA as “an individual, corporation, partnership, association, State, municipality, commission, or political subdivision of a State, or any interstate body,” who is liable or potentially liable under the OPA or another law.

On September 8, 2019, the M/V SAVAGE VOYAGER, a vessel owned by Plaintiffs Savage Services Corp. and Savage Inland Marine LLC, was pushing two tank barges along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a manmade system of canals, locks, and dams linking the Tennessee River in Mississippi with the Tombigbee River in Alabama. According to the Plaintiffs, as the vessel entered the Jamie Whitten Lock, a boat lift operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the “Army Corps”), the lock master began de-watering the lock chamber without notice or warning to the crew and without confirming the tug and tow were within the miter walls. This eventually resulted in a puncture in the cargo tank and the release of crude oil into the lock channel. The Plaintiffs alleged $4 million in damages, the majority of which was incurred in removing oil from the Waterway.

The Plaintiffs filed suit in admiralty against the United States in the Southern District of Alabama. Relying largely on the SAA, the Plaintiffs alleged that the Army Corps was solely responsible and that the United States had waived sovereign immunity for the claims in § 30903 of the SAA. The Government moved to dismiss the Plaintiff’s claim for spill removal cost, contending that the OPA exclusively controlled in oil spill-recovery actions and that the United States has not waived its sovereign immunity under the OPA. In granting the Government’s motion, the district court reasoned that Congress enacted the OPA—a specific, detailed statute assigning responsibility for oil-spill cleanup cost—which lacked any waiver of sovereign immunity thereby expressing their “interest to effect an implied repeal of the general sovereign immunity provision in the SAA as it pertains to oil-spill cleanup damages.” Id. at 12.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.  First, the Court analyzed the plain language of the OPA to find that the United States was not an entity against which a contribution claim could be brought.  The Court noted that not only is there no mention of the United States in the list or “persons” responsible, but also that “when Congress waived sovereign immunity in the contribution provisions of other statutes, it did so much more explicitly.”  Id. at 18.  The Court pointed to, particularly, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) where language clearly including the “United States” as parties subject to civil liability. 

The Court next grappled with the fact that the plain language of the SAA does provide a broad waiver of sovereign immunity for suits in admiralty against the federal government, setting up a conflict between the two statutes.  Here, the Circuit Court resolved the conflict by finding that the OPA’s comprehensive remedial scheme displaced the waiver provision in the SAA and was, as other courts had found, a party’s exclusive remedy for claims for clean-up costs related to oil spills.  The Court first noted that, for purposes of interpretation, detailed statutes generally pre-empt more general ones.  Id. at 27.  This was especially true, the Court reasoned, because the OPA was the more the most recent statute and, by its language, was intended to take precedence over preexisting legislation on the same subject. Although OPA did not impliedly repeal the older, more general SAA, the Court held that it did create a discrete exception to it. Id. at 46.

The effect of the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Savage Servs. Corp. is that Plaintiffs that spill oil may not artfully plead around the OPA to seek contribution from the United States.