Member Spotlight

This issue’s profile of an Admiralty Section member is none other than our own Section’s first chair, Howard G. “Mac” McPherson, otherwise known to most of us as “Mac.” Mac was born and raised in Hawaii and very befitting of the FBA Admiralty Section, he had a former career in commercial diving and salvage, which certainly is interesting given that Mac stands about 6’3” which is tall for a diver. In that career he participated in marine construction and offshore oil production projects on the East, Gulf, and West Coasts of the U. S. Mainland, in Hawaii, and in many of the U. S. Pacific possessions.

After ten years in commercial diving, 1976-1986, Mac resumed his college education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his A.B. in 1988. He continued his studies at Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, receiving his Juris Doctor in 1991. Thereafter, he began practicing law and became a member of the Bars of Hawaii and the U.S. District Court, District of Hawaii in 1991 and the U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit in 1993. In addition to being the FBA Admiralty Section’s first chair, Mac is also a former chair of the Hawaii State Bar Association Admiralty Section. He is a regular speaker at professional seminars on maritime law.

In 2004, Mac joined the firm of Cronin, Fried, Sekiya, Kekina and Fairbanks in Honolulu, Hawaii, concentrating his areas of practice in litigation in the fields of Admiralty, Torts and Insurance as well as complex civil litigation in Federal and State courts.

Please share with us a little about how you came from being a commercial diver to becoming a lawyer and maybe a few sea stories for us.
Sure, commercial diving is a young person’s job, it’s kind of like professional sports in that it’s well paid but hard on the body, and generally speaking, not something one grows old doing. So after a while, even though I really enjoyed my first profession, and made a number of lifelong friends in it, I started thinking about a new career.

And right about then there was this shipwreck in French Frigate Shoals, a notorious shipkilling reef in the open ocean about 500 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Almost immediately, there was a rumor of barratry and the company I was working for at the time was contracted to salvage the vessel, if it could be raised. We were also asked to gather evidence regarding the circumstances of the sinking. We raised and repaired it, towed it 500 miles to Port Allen on Kauai, and documented some smoking gun evidence in the process. I was deposed as the salvage supervisor in the litigation that followed, and after seeing what the lawyers did, decided I could do it too.

Was Admiralty and Maritime law your first interest?
Absolutely. We read Petition of Kinsman Transit Co. the first week of law school, Judge Henry Friendly’s classic limitation case involving a grain ship breaking loose of her moorings on the Buffalo River one winter night, causing all kinds of downstream havoc, and I’ve been reading maritime cases ever since. I never looked back in terms of choosing a specialty.

What do you think most shaped your career in this field?
I think it has been my feeling of a continued connection to the men, and more and more often these days, women, who work at sea or in related shoreside facilities. Right out of law school, I was offered a job in a very fine corporate law firm, where I represented vessel owners and underwriters. It was a great experience. I learned a lot, for which I am still very grateful. But after a few years, I knew, because of my own background, that I was more interested in serving the people who put themselves at risk at sea for a living, and too often, suffer serious injuries in making possible the maritime commerce that is so important to all of us.

What advice would you give to lawyers who are considering a career in maritime law or who have just begun to practice law in the field?
Keep an open mind and always personally inspect. Crawl around in the bilges with the surveyors if you can. Reading a report is one thing. In my experience, going hands on, even if it is inconvenient, or at times unpleasant, is invaluable in ferreting out the true facts.

Have you noticed any trends in the field or significant court decisions that have most impacted your practice in Admiralty law or in Federal Court litigation in general?
The initial rise and what I view as the current continuing jurisprudential fall in importance of Miles v. Apex Marine. Needless to say, as a plaintiff’s lawyer and true believer in the doctrine of judge-made general maritime law development, I thought Miles was wrongly decided and over-applied from the start. So the recent retrenchments of Miles’ effect in the wake of Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, the Fifth Circuit’s recent en banc perspective notwithstanding, have been music to my ears.

Please describe one or two of the most memorable cases that you have been involved with during your career.
There have been a number I’d consider memorable. I’ve been fortunate. But if I had to pick one, I’d say Exxon U.S.A. v. Sofec, Inc., the title of the case as it was docketed in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the old days, when the cases were named after the vessel involved, it would have been called The Exxon Houston. That was the name of the oil tanker that went aground on the lee coast of Oahu in 1989. It never made the news much, for two reasons: our prevailing northeast trades blew the spill out to sea, before it could impact our tourist industry, and because it was overshadowed by Exxon Valdez going aground in Prince William Sound a month later.

It was one of the first trials I was involved in, although I was brand new and had only a minor, supporting role. Still, it was a classic month long bench trial in admiralty, tried before the District of Hawaii’s late Hon. Harold M. Fong. Our client won a complete victory at trial, in the Ninth Circuit, and ultimately in the Supreme Court. One of the most memorable parts of the case for me, in retrospect, was actually pretrial, attending depositions of navigational experts, some very salty and colorful ship captains, in a high floor conference room in the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. The building was later destroyed in September 2001.

When you are not practicing law, what are some of the hobbies that you enjoy?
Spending time with my family, and surfing occasionally at home in Hawaii, nowadays on the smaller swells. I still love getting in the water. And I’m writing a first novel in my spare time, or trying to more accurately. I won’t spoil the story, but I can say I’m having fun with it, and it has nothing at all to do with admiralty law.

Can you tells us a little bit about how the Admiralty Section of the FBA came about and generally what drew you to the FBA in the first place.
The FBA provides a wonderful opportunity to get to know distinguished colleagues from all over the U.S. Having grown up in Hawaii, when the islands were even more isolated than they are now in the middle of the Pacific, connecting with other lawyers from all the regions has been a rewarding personal experience.

The FBA Admiralty Section was a natural outgrowth of that networking. A number of us asked ourselves why there wasn’t already one, since admiralty has been an important federal practice in this country since at least 1789. When the opportunity came, as Judge Gelpi became National President at the San Juan Annual Convention, and he was a strong supporter of the idea, the timing seemed perfect. I had spent the whole of 1981 on a commercial diving job in Puerto Rico and had not been back since then. So in a way, things came full circle for me when the Section was approved and established that September, looking out over the Caribbean Sea.

Submitted by Douglas W. Truxillo, Onebane Law Firm.
Please contact Eric S. Daniel if you would like to nominate someone for a future member spotlight.



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