An Update on the Troubled Waters of Towage Law

During the twentieth century, the United States Supreme Court issued two key opinions in domestic towage cases, Stevens v. The White City and Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp. Each decision caused great uncertainty in the law of towage because each relies on false assumptions and faulty logic. In 2004, towage law was further muddied because of an apparent split of authority between the United States Courts of Appeals for the Fifth and Eighth Circuits over the proper meaning of Rule 14 of the Inland Navigational Rules. Despite these and other uncertainties in the law of towage, two recent decisions awarding limitation of liability to vessel owners demonstrate the ongoing viability of limitation defenses to major towing casualties. The purpose of this Article is to provide an update on the law of towage through (1) a brief background of the Stevens and Bisso decisions, (2) a discussion of the disagreement over the meaning of Rule 14, and (3) an examination of the two recent limitation decisions and the continuing vitality of that defense.