The Modern MASS-T Head: The Rise and Reality of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships

Of modern standers-of-mast-heads we have but a lifeless set; mere stone, iron, and bronze men; who, though well capable of facing out a stiff gale, are still entirely incompetent to the business of singing out upon discovering any strange sight.

MOBY DICK, Chap. XXXV. “THE MAST-HEAD”

While driverless terrestrial vehicles have been a hot topic in the media (including on Baker Donelson’s Autonomous Vehicle Law blog) – from Tesla autopilot crashes to self-driving freight trucks – there has been an equally (if not more) anticipated and analyzed trend (some would say nascent revolution) in the less popularly publicized international maritime vessel operations: the rise of autonomous vessel technologies on the world’s oceans, rivers, and harbors. The term of art for these autonomous vessels – “maritime autonomous surface ships,” “MASS” for short – is ironically cognate with the very vessel “MASters” that autonomous technology would stand to replace.

The initial forays into the possibilities of autonomous vessel technologies began (more or less) with Rolls-Royce just into the second decade of the 2000s. Since then the concept has been put to numerous actual proofs by Rolls-Royce and others, and it is safe to say that it is now not a matter of if or even when MASS technology enters the market, but rather the extent to which MASS technology will disrupt traditional global shipping and vessel operations. And while the technical advances have been steadily developing in the hands of engineers, regulators have been attempting to keep pace with the legal ramifications of MASS. (more…)

Palinurus Asleep at the Helm: USCG Warns of Need for Cyber-Ready Fleets in Wake of Recent Cybersecurity Breach

The slumberous snare
had scarce unbound [Palinurus’s] limbs, when, leaning o’er,
the god upon the waters flung him forth,
hands clutching still the helm and ship-rail torn,
and calling on his comrades, but in vain.!
…Yet were they drawing nigh
the sirens’ island-steep, where oft are seen
white, bleaching bones, and to the distant ear
the rocks roar harshly in perpetual foam.
Then of his drifting fleet and pilot gone
Aeneas was aware, and, taking helm,
steered through the midnight waves, with many a sigh
and, by his comrade’s pitiable death
sore-smitten, cried, “O, thou didst trust too far
fair skies and seas, and liest without a grave,
my Palinurus, in a land unknown!”
 
Vergil’s Aeneid, Book V, ll. 852 et seq.

These are Aeneas’s eulogizing words for Palinurus, the trusted helmsman of the lead Trojan vessel after the fall of Troy, who dozed off under the spell of the god of Sleep, let go the rudder of the ship, fell into the sea and drowned. This ancient mythic episode of omnipotent gods and fallible men serves as a poignant metaphor for the ultra-modern automated “smart” systems that, despite their power, remain as fallible as the men and women using them. And the maritime setting of Palinurus’s slumbering at the rudder is an ancient analog for the United States Coast Guard’s July 8, 2019 Marine Safety Alert entitled, “Cyber Incident Exposes Potential Vulnerabilities Onboard Commercial Vessels” (Cyber MSA) regarding a February 2019 “significant cyber incident impacting their shipboard network” aboard an ocean-going commercial vessel inbound to the port of New Jersey. (more…)

“Yet Now, Federated Along One Keel” – United States Supreme Court Resolves Fifth/Ninth Circuit Split, Unequivocally Rejects Punitive Damages For General Maritime Law Unseaworthiness Claims

Yet now, federated along one keel…
MOBY DICK, HERMAN MELVILLE, Chap. XXVII

In the wake of Justice Thomas’s landmark decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, American maritime jurisprudence was left with its “keeled hulls split at sea” due to a circuit split between the Fifth and Ninth Circuits over a simple but hugely important question: do seamen have a claim for punitive damages under the general maritime law cause of action for unseaworthiness? This question was the fulcrum for leverage in personal injury claims across the country: after Townsend maritime personal injury plaintiffs – pursuing the “white whale” threat of exponentially large exemplary/punitive damage awards – routinely began to include punitive damage claims in their petitions/complaints, usually linked to an unseaworthiness or GML negligence claim, ostensibly as a bargaining chip in settlement/case-valuation negotiations. (more…)

Return to the Tidelands – Supreme Court Upholds Application of Federal Law on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Face of Parallel State Law

In a rare decision applying the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (43 U.S.C. §1331 et seq.(“OCSLA”), the United States Supreme Court has clarified, re-affirmed and perhaps (given the breadth of its opinion) expanded the exclusive application of federal law on the OCS. This decision comes in the midst of a flurry of maritime/maritime-related writ grants in the current term (Newton, Batterton, Thacker, Devries, and ATHOS I) all of which we will be tracking here on Striding the Quarterdeck. This decision may upend decades of jurisprudence in the Fifth Circuit regarding contractual indemnity. (more…)

Know Your Limitations – Recent Jurisprudence Under The Limitation Of Liability Act

Despite perennial complaints from lower and appellate courts that the Limitation of Liability Act (“LLA,” 46 U.S.C. §§30501 et seq.) is “now hopelessly anachronistic” (Cont’l Oil Co. v. Bonanza Corp., 706 F.2d 1365, 1376 (5th Cir. 1983) and that “such a law no longer makes sense” Delta Country Ventures, Inc. v. Magana, 986 F.2d 1260, 1266–67 (9th Cir. 1993), the LLA continues to be a powerful procedural and (when successfully invoked) substantive tool for shipowners. This is despite the fact that virtually every high profile maritime casualty (at least as to limitable personal injury/property claims, as opposed to non-limitable pollution issues) raises public controversy and calls for legislative repeal/restrictions of the century-and-a-half old  “relic of the clipper ship era in which it was launched”[1]  – from the sinking of the TITANIC all the way to the DEEPWATER HORIZON disaster (which prompted an eventually abandoned bill to repeal the LLA), the tragic loss of the EL FARO and the recent catastrophic duckboat incident in Missouri that killed 17. (more…)