To understand why Rhode Island recently approved a set of local admiralty rules for disputes on the high seas, it helps to know the story of the British-flagged freighter M/V Lamma Forest.
In 1985, the ship stopped in Florida to refuel for a voyage that would later include stops in Providence and Bangladesh. After taking on 500 metric tons of fuel from a company called Central Oil, the Lamma Forest headed back to sea, without paying for that fuel.
Fearing they would never see any money from the Lamma Forest, Central Oil executives hired James T. Murphy, a lawyer with Hanson Curran LLP in Providence, who specializes in U.S. admiralty law, to help apprehend the vessel at its next port of call.
Unlike the rules for most land-based property seizures, maritime law allows the rapid “arrest” of vessels to secure unpaid debts. Under a more deliberative process, an ocean-going vessel could end up halfway around the world before a creditor gets access to it.
In the case of the Lamma Forest, the freighter was stopping in Providence to pick up a shipment of scrap metal for delivery to Bangladeshi processors.
Concerned that the vessel, like its cargo, may never return from south Asia, Murphy sought a federal court order to seize the Lamma Forest in the Port of Providence. The order was granted and the vessel was seized by U.S. marshals, who handle all ship arrests under federal admiralty law.
But even though Murphy and his client got the outcome they were looking for, the vagaries of the process and judicial unfamiliarity with maritime law helped convince him the system could be more efficient.
“The judge said, ‘Can we do this?’ ” Murphy said, describing the response to his request to arrest the Lamma Forest. “If you look at most of the cases in federal court, very few of them are admiralty cases, so even experienced judges might not be familiar with the rules and procedures.”
Even after paying Central Oil to have the ship released, the owners of the Lamma Forest challenged the seizure and appealed the judge’s order to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.