Exxon Company, U.S.A. v. Sorec, Inc.

PETITIONER: Exxon Company, U.S.A.
LOCATION: Virginia Military Institute

DOCKET NO.: 95-129
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 517 US 830 (1996)
ARGUED: Mar 19, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 10, 1996

George W. Playdon - Argued the cause for the respondents
Shirley M. Hufstedler - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

An Exxon oil tanker, the Houston, broke free from a mooring facility under control of the respondents, Sofec, Inc. Exxon filed a complaint alleging negligence and breach of warranty in federal district court. Sofec, Inc. filed a successful motion to bifurcate the trial. The trial court considered whether the conduct of the ship's captain, Coyne, was the "superceding and sole proximate cause of the loss of the ship" after the ship had broken free of the moorings in order to determine if the tanker would have been lost despite Coyne's actions. The cause of the ship's release from the moorings became a secondary issue. The court found Coyne negligent, which was the primary cause of the Houston's grounding and subsequent loss. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. Exxon petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari.


Does the "superseding cause" doctrine apply to admiralty cases in which the court previously has adopted a comparative fault principle?

Media for Exxon Company, U.S.A. v. Sorec, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 19, 1996 in Exxon Company, U.S.A. v. Sorec, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Number 95-129, Exxon Company v. Sofec, Inc.--

Ms. Hufstedler.

Shirley M. Hufstedler:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

Exxon's tanker would never have stranded but for respondent's torts and breaches of warranty.

The question presented is whether these respondents should be totally absolved of all liability because the district court found that the tanker captain's navigation of the stricken vessel was grossly negligent.

The answer to that question is no.

The lower courts reached the opposite conclusion by failing to apply the comparative fault principles established by this Court in Reliable Transfer and its progeny by misconceiving and misapplying the common-law doctrine of superseding cause.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

You take the district court to task for having considered causation first and damages second, although it never got to damages.

I should have thought it would have been strange to do anything else.

You must have causation, mustn't you, before you inquire about damages and, of course, that leads to the next question, do you... you're not telling us, I take it, that but-for causation suffices?

Shirley M. Hufstedler:

Not suffices but, but for that issue, you'd never reach the question whether there's any superseding cause, because superseding cause, if it applies at all in admiralty since Reliable Transfer, necessarily assumes, as the district court concluded, that there had been actual cause, or you'd never reach superseding cause.

You don't reach superseding cause, which is a limitation of liability, and it's not causation at all.

It's a question of fault.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, but you must have, before you proceed to the question of damages, that legal cause, that cause which admiralty courts will recognize as sufficient to impose liability on the tortfeasor--

Shirley M. Hufstedler:

Of course.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

--And I'm asking how you define that, other than but-for causation, because I take it it's something more.

Shirley M. Hufstedler:

In admiralty, as in common law, you have to have but-for causation and legal cause.

I do not suggest for a moment that an admiralty claimant need not prove both.

The difficulty here is that the foreclosure orders of the district court prevented Exxon from ever proving its liability case-in-chief to prove that there was legal cause as well as but-for cause, and you never got to the issue of damages because you never finished proving liability.

All of Exxon's evidence with respect to everything that happened before the equipment failed was foreclosed by the district court.

It wasn't a question of order of proof.

It was the question of entering judgment before the liability case-in-chief was proved.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

But Ms.--


--if the district court had found out that some pirates had come, obviously unforeseen cause, I suppose he wouldn't have proceeded to any of those questions either.

And he was saying, rightly or wrongly as a matter of fact, but I think correctly as a matter of law, that he was going to first inquire whether or not the negligence of the Captain's tanker was a supervening cause of this extraordinary proportion, and you weren't foreclosed in producing any evidence on that issue, were you?

Shirley M. Hufstedler:

Yes, because the Captain was reacting to a series of hazards that were created prior to the time the equipment failed.

Exxon was foreclosed from proving anything that happened before that, and even under common-law doctrine, no one can prove there is a superseding cause or that there is not unless there is first proved what the duties are with respect to each of the defendant's acts on the basis of their relationship with each other, and how those breaches of duties created the risks of harm, and until those facts are proved, there is no way in which a court can decide whether there has been superseding cause.

William H. Rehnquist:

Ms. Hufstedler, I don't read your... the questions presented in your petitioner to raise any question about the ordering of the trial.

Shirley M. Hufstedler:

Oh, of course not.