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In re Complaint of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., LLC

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

June 4, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE COMPLAINT OF GREAT LAKES DREDGE AND DOCK COMPANY, L.L.C. AS THE OWNER OF THE BOOSTER BARGE REGGIE, OFFICIAL No. 1151925, FOR EXONERATION FROM OR LIMITATION OF LIABILITY, Limitation-Plaintiff/Petitioner.

         IN ADMIRALTY

          OPINION & ORDER

          HENRY COKE MORGAN, JR. SENIOR UNTIED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes to the Court on Claimant-William Scott Taylor's ("Taylor") Motion to Stay the Limitation Case and Dissolve the Court's Injunction. Motion, Doc. 24. Taylor requests that this Court lift its injunction against his state court personal injury action. See generally Id. Because the relief sought by Taylor runs against the majority position of federal courts, including the Eastern District of Virginia, the Court DENIES the Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This admiralty case arises out of personal injuries suffered by Taylor while working aboard the booster barge Reggie (the "Vessel"). In his state court complaint, Taylor alleges that he was severely injured when electricity from a land-based power supply arched into his body. Doc. 24-1 ("State Compl.") (¶¶ 23-24. Taylor brings his claims under the Longshore and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act ("LHWCA"), specifically 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), against the owner of the Vessel and the owner of the shipyard, Id. The owner of the Vessel was Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company ("Great Lakes") and the owner of the shipyard was Claimant-Colonna's Shipyard, Inc ("Colonna's"). Taylor demands fifteen-million dollars ($15, 000, 000) in damages. Id. at 1, 8. On June 19, 2018, Taylor filed his complaint in the Circuit Court for the City of Norfolk. Id. at 1. He demanded a jury trial. Id. at 8.

         On December 19, 2018, Great Lakes filed a Complaint for Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability in this Court. Limitation Complaint, Doc. 1. On January 22, 2019, this Court entered an Order for Security, ordering Great Lakes to post security in the amount of its stake in the Vessel - $6, 426, 000 and $1, 000 in costs. Order for Security, Doc. 9. On January 22, 2019, the Court also entered an Injunction, enjoining the state court proceedings. Injunction and Notice Order, Doc. 10. Notice of the limitations proceedings was posted that same day. Notice, Doc. 11.

         Two (2) entities have filed claims against the Vessel. Doc. 24-6. Taylor filed his personal injury claims, and Colonna's filed a contribution and indemnification claim. Id.

         Taylor filed the instant Motion on April 8, 2019. Motion, Doc. 24. Colonna's opposed the Motion on April 22, 2019. Colonna's Shipyard, Inc.'s Brief in Opposition to William Taylor's Motion for Stay, Doc. 27 ("Colona's Opp."). Great Lakes opposed the Motion on April 22 as well. Pl.-Pet.'s Brief in Opposition to William Scott Taylor's Motion for a Stay of the Limitation Case, Doc. ("Great Lakes's Opp."). This Court held oral arguments on the instant motion on May 30, 2019. The Court DENIED the Motion from the bench. This Opinion and Order further explains the Court's decision and the reasons given on the bench.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Section 1333 of Title 28 of the United States Code grants federal courts the maritime and admiralty jurisdiction described in Article III, section 2 of the United States Constitution. 28 U.S.C. § 1333. However, that jurisdiction is qualified because the grant of jurisdiction "sav[es] to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled." Id. § 1333(1). The "saving to suitors" clause of 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) is understood to preserve, inter alia, a plaintiffs choice to pursue his maritime claims in state court in front of a jury, unless there is some other basis for federal jurisdiction. See, e.g., Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine. Inc., 531 U.S. 438, 445 (2001).

         The Limitation Act provides a method for the owner(s) of a vessel to limit their liability to the value of the vessel and her pending freight. 46 U.S.C. § 30505(a); Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. R. (F). In doing so, the Limitation Act seeks to promote investment in maritime commerce. Lewis, 531 U.S. at 446 (''Congress passed the Limitation Act in 1851 to encourage ship-building and to induce capitalists to invest money in this branch of industry."). When a shipowner faces liability for certain accidents, he may petition a federal court for limitation or exoneration of liability. 46 U.S.C. § 30505(a). The federal court will then order that all claimants against the vessel and her freight file their claims with that court, creating a concursus of claims, "to ensure the prompt and economical disposition of controversies in which there are multiple claimants." In Re: Lyon Shipyard, 91 F.Supp.3d 832, 834 n.1 (E.D. Va. 2015) (quoting Maryland Cas. Co. v. Cushing, 347 U.S. 409, 415 (1954)). Once the concursus is aggregated, the federal court should proceed to determine the merits of the claims and the claim for limitation. Beiswenger Enterprises Corp. v. Carletta, 86 F.3d 1032, 1036 (11th Cir. 1996).

         The instant motion highlights the inherent tension between these two (2) principles of admiralty and maritime law. When a plaintiff is injured and brings a claim against a vessel and her owner in state court, the saving to suitors clause suggests that a federal court should not disturb the plaintiffs chosen forum. However, the Limitation Act permits the shipowner to invoke a federal court's jurisdiction and enjoin the state court from proceeding and require that the claims relevant to the limitation proceeding be litigated in federal court. When navigating this tension, a court should keep in mind, as Taylor concedes, that the shipowner's right to limitation takes precedence over the injured plaintiffs interest in his chosen state court forum. Odeco Oil and Gas Co., Drilling Div. v. Bonnette, 74 F.3d 671, 675 (5th Cir. 1996).

         In an attempt to ameliorate this tension, the Supreme Court has identified two (2) circumstances under which a federal district court may dissolve its limitation injunction and permit the claims to be litigated in state court. The first situation is when the value of the limitation fund exceeds the sum of all claims on the vessel. Lewis, 531 U.S. at 450. In such a situation, a shipowner's rights under the Limitation Act are protected, because no matter how the case is decided, his liability will not exceed the value of the vessel and her pending freight. See id The second situation is when there is only one (1) claimant in the limitation proceeding and the parties can agree to certain stipulations that adequately protect the shipowner's limitation rights. Id. at 451. In that case, there is no risk that the shipowner's liability will exceed the value of the limitation fund, because only one (1) claim exists and the parties have agreed that the claim will not exceed the fund. In some cases, when there are more than one (1) claim on the vessel and her pending freight, the claimants can issue a set of stipulations which, if they provide adequate protection to the shipowner, can convert a multiple-claimant case into a single-claimant case, Id. at 451 -52; Beisweneer, 86 F.3d 1038-39.

         III. ...


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