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In re Marquette Transp. Co. Gulf-Inland, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

November 13, 2014

In re THE MATTER OF MARQUETTE TRANSPORTATION COMPANY GULF-INLAND, LLC

SECTION: " G" (4)

For Marquette Transportation Company Gulf-Inland, LLC, Marquette Transportation Company Gulf-Inland, LLC, Petitioner, Third Party Plaintiff: Evans Martin McLeod, LEAD ATTORNEY, David J. Saltaformaggio, Phelps Dunbar, LLP (New Orleans), New Orleans, LA.

For United Bulk Terminals Davant, LLC, United Bulk Terminals Davant, LLC, Third Party Defendant, Claimant: Michael William McMahon, LEAD ATTORNEY, Daigle & Fisse, Covington, LA.

For Christopher J. Evans, Claimant: Gino John Rendeiro, LEAD ATTORNEY, David Edmund Kavanagh, Kavanagh & Rendeiro, New Orleans, LA.

ORDER

NANNETTE JOLIVETTE BROWN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This litigation arises from an accident that allegedly occurred aboard the Jeremy, a towing vessel.[1] Before the Court is Claimant Christopher Evans's " Motion to Reset Case as a Bifurcated Jury Trial." [2] Having considered the motion, the memorandum in support, the memorandum in opposition, the memorandum in response, and the applicable law, the Court will grant the pending motion.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

In his claim, Christopher Evans alleges that he was struck in the face by a mooring cable and thrown into the Mississippi River while he was employed as a deckhand aboard the Jeremy.[3] The accident, according to Evans, severely injured him, and necessitated a water rescue by a co-employee.[4] Evans maintains that his injuries were caused solely by the negligence of Limitation Plaintiff Marquette Transportation Company Gulf-Inland, LLC and the unseaworthiness of the Jeremy and its equipment.[5]

B. Procedural Background

On October 7, 2013, Evans filed a Jones Act and General Maritime action against Marquette in the 25th Judicial District Court for the Parish of Plaquemines.[6] On November 7, 2013, Marquette initiated this action for exoneration from or limitation of liability under 46 U.S.C. § 30501 et seq . and Rule F of the Supplemental Rules of Certain Admiralty & Maritime Claims of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[7] Marquette filed an amended complaint on November 20, 2013.[8] On November 21, 2013, the Court imposed a limitation injunction and order restraining Evans from pursuing his state court lawsuit while the limitation action was pending.[9]

Evans filed an " Answer and Claim" against Marquette on December 26, 2013.[10] On December 30, 2013, United Bulk Terminals Davant, LLC (" UBT") filed an " Answer and Claim" denying liability and seeking defense, contribution, and indemnity from Marquette for costs, attorney's fees, and for any amount to which UBT is held liable if " UBT is named a defendant or Marquette tenders Evans' Claim to UBT pursuant to Federal Rules [sic] of Civil Procedure 14(c)." [11]

On July 1, 2014, Evans filed the instant motion to bifurcate.[12] On July 3, 2014, Evans filed a " Motion to Dissolve Limitation Injunction, Motion to Enter Stipulations, and Motion to Stay Limitation Action, " in which Evans urges the Court to permit him to proceed against Marquette in state court.[13] On July 15, 2014, UBT filed a " Response" to Evans's motion to bifurcate, [14] and Marquette filed an opposition to that same motion.[15]

II. Parties' Arguments

A. Evans's " Motion to Reset Case as a Bifurcated Jury Trial"

In support of his " Motion to Reset Case as a Bifurcated Jury Trial, " Evans notes that on October 7, 2013, he filed a Jones Act and General Maritime complaint against Marquette, with jury trial demanded, in the 25th Judicial District Court for the Parish of Plaquemines.[16] One month later, Marquette filed the instant action.[17] Evans notes that when he filed an Answer and Claim in this proceeding on December 26, 2013, he requested a jury trial " on all counts alleged." [18] Nonetheless, Evens maintains, when the case manager from the Clerk's Office held a telephone conference with the parties on January 17, 2014 with the purpose of setting a trial date, " this matter was erroneously set as a non-jury trial." [19]

Evans argues that this Court should " reset this matter as a bifurcated jury trial in accordance with the jurisprudence contained in Brister v. AWI, Inc ." [20] In Brister, Evans contends, although the plaintiff initiated his action in federal court rather than state court, as here, the plaintiff made Jones Act and General Maritime law claims that were " identical" to those at issue here.[21] There, the district judge " followed well-settled Fifth Circuit jurisprudence" and bifurcated the action, allowing the Jones Act and General Maritime causes of action to be tried before the jury, and the limitation claims to be tried before the judge sitting in admiralty.[22]

Evans notes that while the Seventh Amendment does not grant the right to a jury trial in civil admiralty cases, " there are clear exceptions when admiralty issues may be tried to a jury." [23] Such exceptions, according to Evans, include claims under the Jones Act, which confers a statutory right to trial by jury, and claims brought under General Maritime law when those claims are " joined" to a Jones Act claim.[24]

B. UBT's Response

In its " Response" to Evans's motion, UBT states that it has " no opposition or objection to Claimant's Jones Act claim or unseaworthiness claims being tried as a jury trial reserving to this Honorable Court all issues attended to Marquette Transportation Company Gulf-Inland, L.L.C.'s Limitation of Liability Action." [25]

C. Marquette's Opposition

In opposition, Marquette argues that the Court should not grant Evans's request to bifurcate trial on the present action, because Evans previously filed suit in state court asserting " identical" claims, there are multiple claimants before the Court in the present action, and Evans has filed a motion to dissolve the Court's order staying all other proceedings " so that he may litigate his claims in state court before a jury." [26]

Marquette notes that two Fifth Circuit cases, Pershing Auto Rentals, Inc. v. Gaffney [27] and Magnolia Marine Transport v. LaPlace Towing Corp., [28] set forth considerations relevant to the present motion.[29] In Pershing, Marquette contends, the Fifth Circuit " vacated the district court's modification of its injunction prohibiting some claimants in a multiple claim-inadequate fund case to try their negligence claims in state court, " based on a concern that " allowing the claimants to try their negligence claims in state court would destroy the concursus in admiralty that is the heart of the limitation system." [30] In Magnolia Marine, Marquette avers, " the Fifth Circuit was concerned with the conflict between state court claims for negligence and concurrent limitation of liability proceedings in a federal court forum, " and " denied the limitation plaintiffs' motion to strike the jury, because the claimants had not filed their claims in state court nor in any way threatened the federal court's adjudication of the limitation issue." [31] Marquette argues that Evans's actions " constitute the exact concerns" discussed in these two cases, and " threaten the concursus in admiralty, " making denial of his motion appropriate.[32]

III. Law and Analysis

Evans urges this Court to set this matter for bifurcated trial, with Marquette's limitation claims tried before the Court and his Jones Act and General Maritime claims tried before the jury. Marquette opposes this request because Evans continues to seek a jury trial on these claims in state court, " threatening the concursus in admiralty." Pursuant to the Court's November 21, 2013 order, Evans's state court action is stayed pending the determination of the present action, [33] and Evans has brought his Jones Act and General Maritime claims against Marquette in this Court.[34]

A. The Parties' Chosen Trial Procedures

Since both parties' claims are presently set for trial before this Court, it is necessary to determine in the first instance whether rights to a jury trial or a bench trial are implicated at all. Marquette initiated the present action under 46 U.S.C. § § 30501 et seq., the federal statutory scheme governing actions for exoneration and limitation of liability. Evans, on the other hand, seeks relief under the Jones Act and the General Maritime law, and has demanded a jury trial.[35]

1. Jury Trial Under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law

Evans seeks relief under the Jones Act. That statute, as codified at 46 U.S.C. § 30104, provides that " [a] seaman injured in the course of employment . . . may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer." The Supreme Court has held that the Jones Act's jury trial right also applies to General Maritime law claims deriving from the same " transaction or accident" as an underlying Jones Act claim.[36] Evans's jury trial demand is therefore proper.

2. Bench Trial in the Limitation Action

Marquette initiated the present action as an action for exoneration from, or limitation of, liability. Limitation actions employ a " special nonjury procedure" in which " the amount of the claims exceed[] the value of the ship and its cargo, " and the shipowner seeks to limit liability to the value of the ship and its cargo.[37] In a limitation proceeding, the district court, " sitting without a jury, determines the liability of the shipowner and distributes the limitation fund among the claimants in a proceeding called concursus." [38] The Supreme Court, in Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., described the procedure in this way:

The district court secures the value of the vessel or owner's interest, marshals claims, and enjoins the prosecution of other actions with respect to the claims. In these proceedings, the court, sitting without a jury, adjudicates the claims. The court determines whether the vessel owner is liable and whether the owner may limit liability. The court then determines the validity of the claims, and if liability is limited, distributes the limited fund among the claimants.[39]

On the basis of these authorities, Marquette is entitled to a bench trial on the issue of limitation.

B. Bifurcation

As established above, the Court anticipates a non-jury proceeding on limitation and is also faced with a proper jury demand related to claims that will arise during this proceeding. It is therefore confronted with a procedural conflict. Evans proposes to remedy the conflict by resetting " this matter" as a " bifurcated trial with the jury adjudicating Plaintiff's Jones Act and General Maritime Law claims while the [Court sits in admiralty] . . . and adjudicates Marquette's limitation of liability claims." [40] Marquette contends that bifurcation in this federal limitation action will " threaten the concursus in admiralty."

Other Courts, and multiple treatises, have recognized the conflict that arises when jury-triable claims are asserted in limitation proceedings, especially in situations where claimants invoke the so-called " saving-to-suitors" clause of 28 U.S.C. § 1333[41] and seek to litigate their jury-eligible claims in state court.[42] Although the propriety of litigation in state court is a contested issue in this case, [43] it is not before the Court on the present motion.

The Fifth Circuit does not appear to have directly addressed whether bifurcation is appropriate when faced with jury-triable claims in a limitation action. However, the parties' cited authorities, including Matter of Complaint of L.L.P. & D [44] cited by Marquette, and Brister v. A.W.I., Inc., [45] cited by Evans, demonstrate that the Fifth Circuit has addressed cases tried in this way, and has not found the procedure erroneous. In Brister, the Fifth Circuit reviewed a district court's judgment following a bifurcated bench trial on limitation and jury trial on Jones Act claims, finding no error in the Court's birfurcation of the proceedings per se .[46] In Complaint of L.L.P., the district court correctly noted that Brister was not the only instance in which the Fifth Circuit left district courts' decisions to bifurcate " undisturbed." [47] In that case, the district court denied the limitation plaintiff's motion to strike the jury as to the Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims, reasoning that the Fifth Circuit's approval of this procedure and the lack of competing state-court actions capable of threatening the " concursus" supported its decision.[48]

Wright and Miller suggest that bifurcation may be appropriate where jury-triable personal injury claims are presented in a limitation action, stating that:

Limitation actions and personal injury or wrongful death actions may be tried simultaneously if the court decides to proceed in that fashion. When that occurs, the limitation issues are kept from the jury in the spirit of the concursus procedure and the traditional admiralty claims also will be heard without a jury trial.[49]

Courts in other circuits have used this procedure to preserve claimants' rights to a jury trial while maintaining the " concursus" established by the limitation proceeding.[50]

Marquette's other cited authorities appear to address whether pending state-court actions might threaten the " concursus" established by a federal limitation action.[51] In Pershing, the Fifth Circuit held that where multiple claimants assert rights to recover against a fund that is insufficient to satisfy each claim, all of the rival claims must be tried in the limitation proceeding.[52] In Magnolia Marine, also cited by Marquette, the Fifth Circuit held that multiple claimants may proceed in state court while preserving the " concursus" in a federal limitation action as long as these claimants " agree[] and stipulat[e] as to the priority in which claimants will receive satisfaction against the shipowner from the limited fund." [53] In the present motion, however, Evans has only urged the Court to bifurcate the trial in this federal limitation action . Whether he may litigate in state court notwithstanding the pending limitation action is a separate issue.

Given that the only issue presented by this motion is whether the Court should bifurcate the federal trial, Marquette's argument that bifurcation would " threaten the concursus" [54] is unfounded. Mindful of Evans's statutory right to try his Jones Act and General Maritime claims to a jury, this Court will follow the procedure adopted by other district courts and bifurcate trial here. Accordingly,

IT IS ORDERED that Evans's " Motion to Reset Case as a Bifurcated Jury Trial" [55] is GRANTED. The Court will decide Marquette's limitation of liability claims to the extent that Marquette is entitled to try these claims to the Court under controlling law, and a jury will decide Evans's Jones Act and General Maritime Law claims to the extent that Evans is entitled to try these claims to a jury under controlling law.


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