Exxon Co., U. S. A. v. Sofec, Inc., 517 U.S. 830, 6 (1996)

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Cite as: 517 U. S. 830 (1996)

Opinion of the Court

of Exxon's injury. The District Court granted the motion, limiting the first phase of the trial to the issue of proximate causation with respect to actions taken after the breakout, and leaving the issue of causation of the breakout itself for the second phase.

Following a 3-week bench trial in admiralty, the District Court found that Captain Coyne's (and by imputation, Exxon's) extraordinary negligence was the superseding and sole proximate cause of the Houston's grounding. Id., at 63. The court entered final judgment against Exxon with respect to the loss of the Houston, and Exxon appealed.

The Ninth Circuit held that the District Court's findings "that Captain Coyne had ample time, as well as opportunity and available manpower, to take precautions which would have eliminated the risk of grounding, and that his failure to do so amounted to extraordinary negligence, superseding any negligence of the defendants with regard to the breakout or provision of safe berth after the breakout," were "well supported by the record," and not clearly erroneous. 54 F. 3d, at 579. The court rejected Exxon's contention that the captain's actions were foreseeable reactions to the break-out; rather, it noted, Captain Coyne himself had explained that he did not plot fixes "because he felt it was unnecessary to do so." Id., at 578.

Relying upon Circuit precedent, the court rejected Exxon's legal argument that the doctrines of proximate causation and superseding cause were no longer applicable in admiralty in light of this Court's decision in Reliable Transfer. "[A]n intervening force supersedes prior negligence" and thus breaks the chain of proximate causation required to impose liability on the original actor, the court held, "where the subsequent actor's negligence was 'extraordinary' (defined as 'neither normal nor reasonably foreseeable')." 54 F. 3d, at 574. The court also rejected Exxon's argument that the District Court erred in rendering judgment against Exxon


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