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In re Complaint of Columbia Leasing LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

February 20, 2014

IN THE MATTER OF THE COMPLAINT OF COLUMBIA LEASING L.L.C., AS PREVIOUS OWNER, COLUMBIA COASTAL TRANSPORT, L.L.C., AS PRESENT OWNER AND PREVIOUS OWNER PRO HAC VICE OF THE BARGE COLUMBIA HOUSTON, OFFICIAL 694869, AND ITS EMPLOYEE, LARRY WARD, Plaintiff-Petitioners,
v.
JOHN R. MULLEN, II AND KAREN MULLEN, Claimants,
v.
CERES MARINE TERMINALS, INC, AND CERES MARINE TERMINALS INCORPORATED, Claimants.

OPINION AND ORDER

MARK S. DAVIS, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on a motion filed by John R. Mullen, II and Karen Mullen ("the Mullens") pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a) (2), requesting dismissal of their personal injury and loss of consortium crossclaims against Ceres Marine Terminals, Inc. and Ceres Marine Terminals Incorporated (collectively "Ceres"). ECF No. 79. After examination of the record of this matter as a whole, the Court has determined that a hearing on the instant motion is unnecessary, as the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be aided significantly by oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b); E.D. Va. Loc. Civ. R. 7 (J). For the reasons discussed below, the Mullens' Rule 41 motion is GRANTED.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The Mullens filed their personal injury lawsuit in Portsmouth Circuit Court against several defendants, including Ceres.[1] Subsequently, on December 13, 2012, the vessel owners ("Limitation Plaintiffs") filed in this Court a Complaint seeking exoneration from or limitation of liability. ECF No. 1. On February 25, 2013, this Court issued an injunction, pursuant to the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30501, et seq., staying activity in the Portsmouth Circuit Court lawsuit. ECF No. 10 (amended February 28, 2013, ECF No. 11). On April 5, 2013, the Mullens answered Limitation Plaintiffs' Complaint and asserted their personal injury claims against Limitation Plaintiffs. ECF No. 13. The Mullens expressed their "desire that any questions of exoneration or liability of the [vessel owners] be tried by a trial by jury in State Court and that [their] damages be set by a trial by jury in State Court, pursuant to the Saving to Suitors Clause of 33 U.S.C. § 1333(1)." Id . at 7.

On April 11, 2013, Ceres filed an Answer and Claim in this Court, seeking contribution and indemnity from the vessel owners in the event that "Ceres and [the vessel owners] are found jointly liable for the Mullens['] injuries." ECF No. 14 at ¶ 11. On April 23, 2014, the Mullens amended their answer, asserting "a maritime personal injury Crossclaim" and "a loss of consortium [Cross]claim" against [Ceres] in this Court, but maintaining their "desire to try their claims against [Ceres], pursuant to the Saving to Suitors Clause of 33 U.S.C. § 1333(1), ... in the Portsmouth Circuit Court." ECF No. 19 at 13. On May 9, 2013, Ceres filed a motion to dismiss the Mullens' crossclaims for failure to state a claim. ECF No. 21.

On June 7, 2013, the Mullens filed a Motion to Lift or Modify Injunction, "pursuant to their saving to suitors rights provided by 28 U.S.C. § 1333." ECF No. 31. Along with their motion, the Mullens filed proposed stipulations, attempting to "effectively protect the [Limitation Plaintiffs'] rights to seek limitation of liability, while permitting the Mullens to pursue their remedies in Portsmouth Circuit Court." Mullens' Mem. in Supp. at 1-2, ECF No. 32. However, neither Limitation Plaintiffs nor Ceres agreed to the Mullens' proposed stipulations, arguing that "the stipulation procedure is completely inapt, " Ceres' Br. in Opp. at 5, ECF No. 37, and observing that Limitation Plaintiffs would still be exposed to a contribution/indemnity claim by Ceres, beyond any limitation fund, because the Mullens "do not stipulate that they will not seek to enforce any judgment against... Ceres for any amount that is in excess of the value of the limitation fund, " Limitation Pis.' Br. in Opp. at 8, ECF No. 38.[2] Thus, because the decision whether to allow a claimant to proceed in state court is "one of discretion in every case, '" and because the Mullens did not stipulate that they would not seek to enforce any judgment against Ceres for any judgment amount in excess of the limitation fund - thereby exposing Limitation Plaintiffs to Ceres' contribution/indemnity claim - the Court exercised its discretion to retain and address the limitation/exoneration action in this matter. Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc. , 531 U.S. 438, 449, 454 (2001).

On August 28, 2013, Limitation Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 46, on their claim for exoneration from or limitation of liability, pursuant to the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30501, et seq. Limitation Plaintiffs' summary judgment motion became ripe for review on September 17, 2013. On October 2, 2013, the Mullens filed a Motion to Sever Issue of Liability, ECF No. 62, "so that all non-limitation issues may be tried in state court, and [the Mullens'] saving to suitors rights in relation to Ceres may be protected, " ECF No. 63. On January 10, 2014, having fully considered Limitation Plaintiffs' request for exoneration from, or limitation of, liability, the Court determined that exoneration (rather than mere limitation) was appropriate and granted Limitation Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 78. Having exonerated Limitation Plaintiffs from any liability to the Mullens on their claims, the Court dismissed the Mullens' claims against Limitation Plaintiffs, as well as Ceres' contribution claim against Limitation Plaintiffs, "as [Limitation] Plaintiffs are not liable to the Mullens for their negligence claims." Id . at 36. The sole remaining claims before this Court are the Mullens' crossclaims against Ceres.

On January 20, 2014, ten days after the Court granted summary judgment to Limitation Plaintiffs, the Mullens filed the instant motion, ECF No. 79, requesting that the Court "dismiss their crossclaims against [Ceres], without prejudice, so that the Mullens may pursue their saving to suitors remedies against Ceres in an action previously filed in Portsmouth Circuit Court, " ECF No. 80. Ceres filed its response brief on February 3, 2014, arguing that "the Mullens' unjustified delay caused Ceres unfair legal prejudice" and that the Court could protect the Mullens' saving to suitors rights by "simply grant[ing] them a jury trial in this proceeding." ECF No. 83 at 2, 9. The Mullens filed their reply brief on February 4, 2014. ECF No. 84. Therefore, the motion has been fully briefed and the matter is now ripe for decision.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that "an action may be dismissed at the [claimant's] request... on terms that the court considers proper." Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(2); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(c) (stating that Rule 41 also "applies to a dismissal of any counterclaim, crossclaim, or third-party claim"). "The purpose of [Rule 41] is freely to allow voluntary dismissals unless the parties will be unfairly prejudiced." Davis v. USX Corp. , 819 F.2d 1270, 1273 (4th Cir. 1987). A "motion to voluntarily dismiss a claim should not be denied absent plain legal prejudice to the [opposing party]." Ellett Bros., Inc. v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. , 275 F.3d 384, 388 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Andes v. Versant Corp. , 788 F.2d 1033, 1036 (4th Cir. 1986)). In determining whether to grant a motion for voluntary dismissal, "a district court should consider factors such as the opposing party's effort and expense in preparing for trial, excessive delay and lack of diligence on the part of the movant, and insufficient explanation of the need for a voluntary dismissal, as well as' the present stage of litigation.'" Miller v. Terramite Corp. , 114 F.Appx. 536, 539 (4th Cir. 2004) (quoting Phillips USA, Inc. v. Allflex USA, Inc. , 77 F.3d 354, 358 (10th Cir. 1996) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)). However, "[n]either the mere prospect of a second lawsuit, nor the possibility that [the moving party] will gain a tactical advantage, such as that which would be gained by refiling in state court, are sufficient prejudice to deny a motion for voluntary dismissal." Teck Gen. P'ship v. Crown Cent. Petroleum Corp. , 28 F.Supp.2d 989, 991 (E.D. Va. 1998) (citing Gross v. Spies , 133 F.3d 914, 1998 U.S.App. LEXIS 471, at *5 (4th Cir. 1998) (unpublished table decision); Davis , 819 F.2d at 1275).

III. DISCUSSION

The Mullens argue that "voluntary dismissal without prejudice is appropriate at this stage of the litigation" and assert that "Ceres will not be unfairly prejudiced if the Court grants the motion." Mullens' Br. at 7, ECF No. 80. Ceres disagrees, arguing that, by effectively preventing Ceres from removing the case to federal court, "the Mullens have intentionally prejudiced Ceres' rights." Ceres' Br. in Opp. at 9, ECF No. 83. Ceres also contends that the Court could satisfy the Mullens' right to a jury trial by "simply grant[ing] them a jury trial in this proceeding." Id.

A. Ceres' Effort and Expense in Preparing for Trial

Ceres asserts that it "has fully briefed a Motion to Dismiss and spent considerable time and attorneys' fees litigating in federal court." Id . at 6. Thus, Ceres contends, "because the parties have fully briefed dispositive motions and spent substantial resources taking federal court discovery, the Mullens' Motion should be denied." Id . at 7-8. The Mullens assert, however, that "[m]ost of the federal discovery conducted by ...


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