(CN) – The captain of a ship that crashed into several vessels in the Mississippi River during Hurricane Katrina should have known that the storm was bearing down on New Orleans and should have avoided the port, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Captain Nikolaos Ntouslazis “had ample time to find a safer berth and was not in a position of peril at the time he decided to proceed to New Orleans,” the appellate panel ruled.
The Panamanian ship Chios Beauty arrived at the river’s mouth on Aug. 26, 2005, just before the National Hurricane Center warned that Katrina would likely hit New Orleans.
Despite the forecast, Ntouslazis moved on to New Orleans, where the ship was tossed by the storm and crashed into moored barges and tugboats owned by defendants Crescent Towing & Salvage Company and Cooper Consolidated, causing nearly $5 million in damage.
The district court found that Ntouslazis and the ship’s owners failed to properly monitor and interpret weather reports that the storm was headed to New Orleans and awarded Cooper Consolidated $279,000 and Crescent Towing $4.6 million.
On appeal the ship’s owner, Harbor Shipping and Trading, argued that the district court had used the wrong standard for negligence, saying that it should have used the in extremis standard, which discourages courts from “second guess[ing] parties in peril and expect[ing] from them the most precise judgments.”
The three-judge appellate panel disagreed, however.
“Katrina was not predicted to make landfall for another two days, which gave the captain ample time to run to a safer port in the western Gulf,” wrote Judge Edith Brown Clement. “Prior to the ship entering [the Mississippi], NHC issued an advisory showing New Orleans at dead center of the storm’s projected landfall. Ntouslazis had access to continuously updated weather information . . . and could have acted upon this information.”
The panel also rejected the defendant’s argument that weather reports did not explicitly predict a direct hit on New Orleans.
“These advisories are obviously predictions and are subject to uncertainty,” Clement wrote. “But they were the best available forecast of Katrina’s path at the time Ntouslazis decided to proceed to New Orleans. We affirm the judgment of the district court as to its finding of a predicted ‘direct hit’ on New Orleans, its factual findings based on this finding, and the ultimate finding of negligence to the extent that it relies upon this finding.”