The success of the Maritime Law Seminar lays the groundwork for future growth.

On April 26-28, the Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association conducted the 39th edition of its annual River and Marine Industry Seminar, one of the country’s oldest and most regarded maritime law courses. The event was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in New Orleans’ central business district.

Among those in attendance were maritime attorneys, marine insurance agents, adjustors, claims managers, fleet owners and operators, and anybody else with a professional interest in maritime law or the marine business. Panelists included top Coast Guard personnel, leading maritime attorneys and judges, and medical and insurance experts.

GNOBFA President Karl Gonzales stated in his opening remarks that the conference had to turn many away this year due to its popularity and venue constraints. The conference sold out its 375-person capacity, with 117 of them being first-time attendees, demonstrating that GNOBFA is gaining new members and laying the groundwork for future expansion.

The majority of the sessions were moderated by Marc Hebert, conference organizer, and Jones Walker partner. However, his father, longstanding GNOBFA director Maurice Hebert, made a surprising “Tom Brady” homecoming to lead a panel, despite having announced his retirement from GNOBFA duties last year.

A quick remark by Greg Derbes, who thought up the GNOBFA conference 30 years ago when he was a fleet manager; today, he leads an IT consulting firm he created in Baton Rouge, was a highlight of this year’s program.

Arguin On MTS Challenges

Arguin After complimenting his efforts during last year’s low-water occurrences, Gonzales presented keynote speaker Rear Adm. Wayne Arguin, the United States Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for preventative policy. Arguin personally inspected levees during the 2018 flood, according to Marc Hebert.

According to Arguin, the majority of his work in recent years has been focused on issues such as mariner shortages and mental health, as well as increased congestion on waterways and the difficulty of lowering greenhouse gases in the marine transportation sector. Towing firms will need more young employees with a new set of technological abilities as alternative fuels expand and technology gets more complex, he predicts. While businesses can specialize in one or more of the new fuel options—liquefied natural gas, ammonia, methanol, or electric—the Coast Guard must be informed about all of them in order to perform its responsibilities.

Arguin brought up sexual harassment, linking it to recruitment activities. The Coast Guard recently issued new reporting procedures for incidents of sexual or other harassment onboard regulated boats. “Prevention is better than accountability after the fact,” Arguin asserted. He described safety as ensuring that all seafarers feel safe and that nothing distracts them from completing their jobs.

The Coast Guard had received 85 proposals from the Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee (MERPAC) on how to expedite recruitment processes, according to Arguin.

Another problem, according to Arguin, is the shared use of waterways as wind power grows more prevalent and wind farms must share space with commercial offshore and marine traffic. Automation is being used on a variety of infrastructure, from bridges to railways, and is being researched for locks and dams. “Without our ports and waterway systems, we would not be the world leaders that we are today,” Arguin said.

‘Jeopardy’ at Sea

The first panel used a “Jeopardy” style to examine the “maritime dictionary of litigation terms”—many of which were in Latin—with Gonzalez, Savoie, and GNOBFA committee member Tommy Grantham acting as “contestants” in the front row.

Andrew Edison, a United States magistrate judge for the Southern District of Texas, moderated a discussion with James Mercante and Marc Hebert, both of New York. Edison observed that the majority of Texas judges who handle maritime cases had little or no experience in maritime law. “Federal judges are not stupid—but we can be.” “We rely on you [industry members] to educate us,” he stated, adding that “no amount of explanation [of maritime issues] will be insulting to us.”

A vigorous debate developed about the contrasts between a Coast Guard-only marine inquiry and one that included the National Transportation Safety Board. In recent years, the NTSB has become significantly more active in marine investigations, according to Hebert. In contrast to Coast Guard findings, NTSB board findings are admissible in court as evidence in maritime casualty cases—but not the NTSB’s judgments concerning an occurrence.

The scenario of a Potential Spill and Injury

Many of the panels discussing legal and insurance issues were based on a hypothetical scenario—a hypothet” in legal parlance—created by GNOBFA executives, featuring oil spills, a hull breach, and multiple injuries. Edison and Mercante, a maritime defense attorney with Rubin, Fiorella, Friedman, and Mercante LLP, were on one of Hebert’s panels. It looked into things like who is a “seaman” under the Jones Act, what “joint and several liability” is, what “all risk insurance” is, and who counts as a “longshoreman.”

Lara DiCristina of Jones Walker and Kristi Post of Blake Jones Law firm investigated the issues surrounding pre-existing injuries in personal injury lawsuits, as well as whether a maritime employer can ever deny maintenance and cure payments, which are payments due to an injured Jones Act employee regardless of fault, under maritime law.

C. Barrett Rice of Broussard & Williamson and Jason R. Kenny of Staines, Eppling & Kenney LLC discussed some of the “strange and numerous” issues that could arise in a personal injury lawsuit based on the scenario, as well as what issues are or should be presented to the employer in response to the hypothesis. Which coverages are used and why? What are the numerous policy terms and restrictions, and how do they apply?

Sustainability, Technology, and Capacity Challenges

Circuit Judge Kurt Engelhardt of the Fifth Circuit, a seasoned GNOBFA panelist, presided over a panel on legal ethics and professionalism on April 27. It also comprised two other judges, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Currault and Texas Judicial Branch Justice Ken Wise, as well as Jonathan Sandoz, senior vice president and general counsel of CGB Enterprises, and George Vourvoulias, an attorney with The Maritime Injury Law Firm in New Orleans.

Arguin, Mike Ellis, CEO of American Commercial Barge Line, and Jon Macklem, vice president and legal counsel of the Cooper Group, were on a panel discussing emerging MTS problems. The “triple challenge,” according to Arguin, was to increase MTS capacity while also fulfilling public demand for ecological stewardship and managing increasingly sophisticated technologies to improve efficiency and profitability. Marc Hebert mentioned that a business named Saildrone is already running autonomous solar-powered sailing yachts operated by artificial intelligence to map and deliver data on the oceans. The Coast Guard is researching road rules for self-driving vehicles.

Even before considering technological advancements, Ellis stated that “we are so much more efficient than before” in operations. “We are moving cargo more efficiently, and we are always looking for that sweet spot in vessel-building decision trees.” He reminded the audience that efficiency must always include cost efficiency. “Stakeholders are always interested in what you’re doing.”

Dr. Barton Wax of the Jefferson Orthopedic Clinic and Dr. R. Dean Yount, a cardiologist with Ochsner Health, led a team of specialists who discussed how to treat the injuries in the scenario.

In a panel discussion about charter agreements, Bridge Carbary, an in-house lawyer for Upper River Services, and Chris Ulfers of Jones Walker served as “defense attorneys.”

The necessity of attendees filling out the comment sheets was emphasized by seminar organizers, who will immediately begin planning next year’s program.