St. Mary's University School of Law
Since 1854, the United States has followed the English rule regarding ship collision cases: where both vessels involved in a collision are at fault, each party is responsible for one-half of the total damages regardless of its respective degree of blame. At the time, the rule was considered necessary to provide just and equitable results in admiralty litigation. However, the harshness of the rule justifies its disregard in favor of more equitable remedies. The problem with divided damages can be illustrated by the following scenario: a small pleasure craft and an oil tanker collide. The pleasure craft is only slightly negligent and suffers a loss of $10,000. The tanker is grossly negligent and suffers a loss of $10,000,000. The divided damages rule would apportion the losses equally despite the minimal negligence by the pleasure craft, obligating the pleasure craft owner to pay $4,995,000. One exception to the rule exists: a ship technically at fault can avoid liability by proving that his breach in no way contributed to the accident. However, the no-contribution exception has limited application because the Supreme Court has held that every technical violation creates a presumption of contribution to fault. The lower federal courts have attempted to make in-roads against the harshness of divided damages, but the rules are often in conflict with the no-contribution exception or have limited application. If the inequities of the divided damages rule have not been apparent to American jurists, this has not been the case for most other major maritime powers who have adopted uniform comparative fault principles to ensure mariners are held fully responsible for their actions. It is time for the Supreme Court to follow suit and move America into the mainstream of international maritime law, thereby redressing the harsh inequities of 120 years of divided damages.
Howard E. Davis Jr.,
Available at: https://commons.stmarytx.edu/thestmaryslawjournal/vol7/iss1/15