Tugging and barging into judicial estoppel

A barge accident caused a large oil spill in the Mississippi River.  In the first lawsuit about the incident, the district court placed liability solely on the tugboat operator, noting the (valid and enforceable) charter agreement between it and the barge owner.  In a later case, the barge owner contended that the agreements were void ab initio because the tugboat operator entered without intent to perform.  Gabarick v. Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., No. 13-30739 (May 21, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit agreed that the new position was barred by judicial estoppel. Key to its analysis was that while the barge owner’s positions were in the alternative in the first action, which would not create estoppel: “Once a court has accepted and relied upon one of a party’s several alternative positions, any argument inconsistent with that position may be subject to judicial estoppel in subsequent proceedings.”  The Court also concluded that the district court’s decision to stay the second case so the first could proceed did not compel an argument choice in that case that would make the application of judicial estoppel inequitable.

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