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Prevailing Parties in Maritime Contract Disputes

In this case of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit addressed the issue of “what constitutes a ‘prevailing party’ in the context of a maritime contract dispute.”[1] The dispute arose out of the sale of nine vessels from Hornbeck Offshore to Genesis Marine. In order to continue providing charter services to existing third-parties, Hornbeck and Genesis entered into a series of contracts concerning crew and vessel management and “back-to-back” contracts specific to each vessel.[2] The pertinent “back-to-back” contract pertained to a charter agreement with Anadarko.

Genesis attempted to extinguish all vessel management agreements and litigation between the parties ensued. Under the relevant “back-to-back” agreement, Genesis sued for breach of contract to the order of $722,346.36, and Hornbeck replied with affirmative defenses totaling $117,284.54.[3] The question for the court was which party was the “prevailing party.”[4] The court noted that in a non-maritime context, a “plaintiff prevails when actual relief on the merits of his own claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties.”[5] The court thus adopted this definition to apply to prevailing parties under general maritime law.

Based on this definition, both Genesis and Hornbeck qualified as prevailing parties – Genesis and Hornbeck both obtained judgments against each other which materially altered their legal relationship with the other party. In light of this conclusion, the district court held, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed that neither Genesis nor Hornbeck were entitled to attorney’s fees even though they were both prevailing parties, reasoning that the two parties’ request for attorney’s fees nullified any award of fees between them.

[1] Genesis Marine, L.L.C. v. Hornbeck Offshore Services, L.L.C., 19-30313 4 (5th Cir. 2020).

[2] Id. at 2.

[3]Id. at 3.

[4] Id.

[5]Id. at 4. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1988).