Four claims were filed in federal court against owners of a towboat used in May to round up two barges swept away twice by floodwaters at the Port of Muskogee before crashing into Webbers Falls Dam.
Bruce Oakley Inc. and Johnston’s Port 33 filed a maritime action in August seeking to shied the companies from liability and limit damages. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court of Eastern Oklahoma, set a Sept. 30 deadline for prospective claimants.
Among those who filed claims are barge owners LMR Freight and Marquette Transportation Co., and Consolidated Grain and Barge Co. and CGB Enterprises Inc., which owned the fertilizer loaded on the barges that sank after the collision. Other claimants include Georgia-Pacific Consumer Operations LLC and the United States of America.
While Oakley claims and seeks “exoneration from liability for any loss, damages or injury,” all claimants allege negligence in answers or claims filed in response. The claims made also would exceed the $2 million cap sought by Oakley for damages stemming from the events of May 22-23.
Oakley Inc. and Johnston’s Port 33 own the towboat used midday on May 22 to round up the two barges alleged to have been set “adrift in the current” by the crew of another towboat. While the two barges initially were secured by the crew aboard the Oakley-owned M/V Legacy, rising river levels uprooted trees to which they were moored along the riverbank and the barges were loose a second time later that night.
The barges, which were loaded with fertilizer, “came to rest on a sandbar upriver” of Lock & Dam 16. In an attempt to keep them from floating farther downstream, according to Oakley's complaint, “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the dam gates on May 23, 2019, to lower the river stage upriver of the dam ..., but the current pulled” them “off the sandbar and toward the dam,” which they subsequently struck before sinking.
LMR alleges in its claim there were available slots along the Port of Muskogee available where the barges could have been secured, but Oakley chose to moor them instead to trees. Lawyers representing LMR allege the failure of the towboat's crew to round up the barges after being notified of the trees being uprooted constitute negligence because the barges were in their care, custody and control, and LMR is entitled to recover its losses.
Consolidated Grain and CGB Enterprises, which claim damages totaling more than $1.08 million for the lost fertilizer, allege Oakley had accepted both the barges and the cargo. After doing so it had a duty to exercise "reasonable care under the prevailing and foreseeable circumstances to provide safe mooring and berth," and its breach of that duty constitutes negligence.
Georgia-Pacific filed a protective claim, citing the paper mill’s inextricable link to the availability of sufficient water with its operations. The company cites efforts undertaken to ensure access to water after the elevation of the Webbers Falls pool was lowered for an extended period of time to accommodate the extraction of the sunken barges.
The federal government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleges Oakley violated the Rivers and Harbors Act, which makes it unlawful to damage any structure used for the preservation of navigation. It also alleges negligence pursuant to general maritime law without limiting any award for damages resulting from the collision of the barges at Webbers Falls Dam.
Oakley has filed counterclaims against Marquette Transportation Co. and LMR, alleging crews of the M/V Dennis Collins, a third-party defendant, changed the mooring lines without permission or against the advice of Oakley. Those actions, the counterclaim alleges, caused or contributed to the events at issue, and liability should attach.
Oakley named Southern Towing and the M/V Dennis Collins, which brought the barges to the Port of Muskogee, as third-party defendants.