411 U.S. 325 (1973), 71-1082, Askew v. American Waterways Operators, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 71-1082
Citation:411 U.S. 325, 93 S.Ct. 1590, 36 L.Ed.2d 280
Party Name:Askew v. American Waterways Operators, Inc.
Case Date:April 18, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 325

411 U.S. 325 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 1590, 36 L.Ed.2d 280



American Waterways Operators, Inc.

No. 71-1082

United States Supreme Court

April 18, 1973

Argued November 14, 1972




Florida Oil Spill Prevention and Pollution Control Act, providing for the State's recovery of cleanup costs and imposing strict, no-fault liability on waterfront oil-handling facilities and ships destined for or leaving such facilities for any oil-spill damage to the State or private persons, does not, in the context of this action by shipping interests to enjoin application of the Florida statute, [93 S.Ct. 1593] invade a regulatory area preempted by the federal Water Quality Improvement Act, which is concerned solely with recovery of actual cleanup costs incurred by the Federal Government, and presupposes a coordinated federal-state effort to deal with coastal oil pollution. Nor is the State's police power over sea-to-shore pollution preempted by the Admiralty Extension Act, which does not purport to supply an exclusive remedy in this admiralty-related situation. Southern Pacific Co. v. Jewsen, 244 U.S. 205, and Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149, distinguished. Pp. 329-344.

335 F.Supp. 1241, reversed.

DOUGLAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 327

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought by merchant shipowners and operators, world shipping associations, members of the Florida coastal barge and towing industry, and owners and operators of oil terminal facilities and heavy industries located in Florida, to enjoin application of the Florida Oil Spill Prevention and Pollution Control Act, Fla.Laws 1970, C. 70-244, Fla.Stat.Ann. § 376.011 et seq. (Supp. 1973) (hereinafter referred to as the Florida Act). Officials responsible for enforcing the Florida Act were named as defendants, but the State of Florida intervened as a party defendant, asserting that its interests were much broader than those of the named defendants. A three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281.

The Florida Act imposes strict liability for any damage incurred by the State or private persons as a result of an oil spill in the State's territorial waters from any waterfront facility used for drilling for oil or handling the transfer or storage of oil (terminal facility) and from any ship destined for or leaving such facility. Each owner or operator of a terminal facility or ship subject to the Act must establish evidence of financial responsibility by insurance or a surety bond.1 In addition, the Florida Act provides for regulation by the State Department of Natural Resources with respect to containment

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gear and other equipment which must be maintained by ships and terminal facilities for the prevention of oil spills.

Several months prior to the enactment of the Florida Act, Congress enacted the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970, 84 Stat. 91, 33 U.S.C. § 1161 et seq. (hereinafter referred to as the Federal Act).[1a] This Act subjects shipowners and terminal facilities to liability without fault up to $14,000,000 and $8,000,000, respectively, for cleanup costs incurred by the Federal Government as a result of oil spills. It also authorizes the President to promulgate regulations requiring ships and terminal facilities to maintain equipment for the prevention of oil spills. It is around that Act and the federally protected tenets of maritime law evidenced by Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, and its progeny that the controversy turns. The District Court held that the Florida Act is an [93 S.Ct. 1594] unconstitutional intrusion into the federal maritime domain. It declared the Florida Act null and void, and enjoined its enforcement. 335 F.Supp. 1241.

The case is here on direct appeal. We reverse. We find no constitutional or statutory impediment to permitting Florida, in the present setting of this case, to establish any "requirement or liability" concerning the impact of oil spillages on Florida's interests or concerns. To rule as the District Court has done is to allow federal admiralty jurisdiction to swallow most of the police power of the States over oil spillage -- an insidious form of pollution of vast concern to every coastal city or port

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and to all the estuaries on which the life of the ocean and the lives of the coastal people are greatly dependent.


It is clear at the outset that the Federal Act does not preclude, but in fact allows, state regulation. Section 1161(o) provides that:

(1) Nothing in this section shall affect or modify in any way the obligations of any owner or operator of any vessel, or of any owner or operator of any onshore facility or offshore facility to any person or agency under any provision of law for damages to any publicly owned or privately owned property resulting from a discharge of any oil or from the removal of any such oil.

(2) Nothing in this section shall be construed as preempting any State or political subdivision thereof from imposing any requirement or liability with respect to the discharge of oil into any waters within such State.

(3) Nothing in this section shall be construed . . . to affect any State or local law not in conflict with this section.

(Emphasis added.) According to the Conference Report,

any State would be free to provide requirements and penalties similar to those imposed by this section or additional requirements and penalties. These, however, would be separate and independent from those imposed by this section, and would be enforced by the States through its courts.2

(Emphasis added.) The Florida Act covers a wide range of "pollutants," § 3(7), and a restricted definition of pollution. § 3(8). We have here, however, no question concerning any pollutant except oil.

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The Federal Act, to be sure, contains a pervasive system of federal control over discharges of oil "into or upon the navigable waters of the United States, adjoining shorelines, or into or upon the waters of the contiguous zone." § 1161(b)(1). So far as liability is concerned, an owner or operator of a vessel is liable to the United States for actual costs incurred for the removal of oil discharged in violation of § 1161(b)(2) in an amount "not to exceed $100 per gross ton of such vessel or $14,000,000, whichever is lesser," § 1161(f)(1), except for discharges caused solely by an act of God, act of war, negligence of the United States, or act or omission of another party. With like exceptions, the owner or operator of an onshore or offshore facility is liable to the United States for the actual costs incurred by the United States in an amount not to exceed $8,000,000. § 1161(f)(2)-(3). But, in each case, the owner or operator is liable to the United States for the full amount of the costs where the United States can show that the discharge of oil was "the result of willful negligence or willful misconduct within the privity and knowledge of the owner." Comparable provisions of liability spell out the obligations of "a third party" to the United States for its actual costs incurred in the removal of the oil. § 1161(g).

So far as vessels are concerned, the federal Limited Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 181-189, extends to damages caused by oil spills even where the injury is to the shore. Richardson v. Harmon, 222 U.S. 96, 106. That Act limits the liabilities of the owners [93 S.Ct. 1595] of vessels to the "value of such vessels and freight pending." 46 U.S.C. § 189.

Section 12 of the Florida Act makes all licensees3 of

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terminal facilities "liable to the state for all costs of cleanup or other damage incurred by the state and for damages resulting from injury to others," it not being necessary for the State to plead or prove negligence.4 There is no conflict between § 12 of the Florida Act and § 1161 of the Federal Act when it comes to damages to property interests, for the Federal Act reaches only costs of cleaning up. As respects damages, § 14 of the Florida Act requires evidence of financial responsibility of a terminal facility or vessel -- a provision which does not conflict with the Federal Act.

The Solicitor General says that, while the Limited Liability Act, so far as vessels are concerned, would override § 12 of the Florida Act by reason of the Supremacy Clause, the Limited Liability Act has no bearing on "facilities" regulated by the Florida Act. Moreover, § 12 has not yet been construed by the Florida courts, and it is susceptible of an interpretation so far as vessels are concerned which would be in harmony with the Federal Act. Section 12 does not, in terms, provide for unlimited liability.

Moreover, while the Federal Act determines damages measured by the cost to the United States for cleaning up oil spills, the damages specified in the Florida Act relate in part to the cost to the State of Florida in cleaning up the spillage. Those two sections are harmonious parts of an integrated whole. Section 1161(c)(2) directs the President to prepare a National Contingency

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Plan for the containment, dispersal, and removal of oil. The plan must provide that federal agencies "shall" act "in coordination with State and local agencies." Cooperative action with the States is also contemplated by § 1161(e), which provides that, "[i]n addition to any other action taken by a State or local government," the President may, when there is an imminent and substantial threat to the public health or welfare, direct the United States Attorney of the district in question to bring suit to abate the threat. The reason for the provision in § 1161(o)(2), stating that nothing in § 1161 preempts any State "from imposing any requirement or liability with respect to the discharge of oil into any waters within such...

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