The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the appeal by Citgo Petroleum Co. in the oil spill suit against the company. The high court denied Citgo’s petition for writ of certiorari without comment. Citgo argued that its responsibility for ensuring a safe berth was limited to the immediate entrance of its Philadelphia-area port. Citgo was attempting to overturn a ruling by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, which had revived the case. The federal government and a pair of shipping companies filed suit against the oil company. Citgo argued that the appeals court misinterpreted the contractual safe berth warranty that Citgo company provided to Frescati Shipping Co. Ltd. and its M/V Athos I vessel.
Citgo claimed in its petition that it had no control over the federal waters where Athos I collided with an abandoned ship anchor. The company asked the Supreme Court to consider whether a wharf owner’s duty to provide a safe approach for a vessel extended to federal waters and whether a safe berth provision in a voyage contract is a guarantee of safety. The suit arose out of a 2004 incident in which the Athos I struck a submerged anchor in the Delaware River near Citgo’s terminal, spilling 265,000 gallons of crude oil into the river. Frescati said it spent more than $180 million to clean up the spill, $88 million of which was covered by the federal government under the Oil Pollution Act. In the suit, both Frescati and the government were attempting to recoup the funds. They contended that Citgo had an obligation to remove any potential hazards in the vicinity of its port.
In 2011, U.S. District Judge John Fullam dismissed the Plaintiffs’ negligence claims against Citgo. Judge Fullam ruled that holding the company liable would have placed an unreasonable amount of responsibility on Citgo regarding port operations. In May, the Third Circuit overturned that decision, ruling that Citgo could not escape its duty to maintain a safe approach for ships like the Athos I that enter its port. Judge Fallam had limited the approach to the areas “immediately adjacent or within immediate access” of the ship’s berth. But the appeals court disagreed, finding that his interpretation was overly restrictive.
It should be noted that the ruling by the Third Circuit did not decide the actual liability issue. The court said that it did not have enough information to determine if Citgo was guilty of negligence. The district court was instructed to ascertain the appropriate standard of care required from the oil company and then determine whether, regarding the spill, that standard was breached. The trial court will have to determine whether the bottom of the Athos I was deep enough to violate its warranty. The court will also determine whether Citgo was negligent in not determining that an anchor lay within the ship’s approach.
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