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In re Fleet

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

October 19, 2017

IN RE MAGNOLIA FLEET

         SECTION: “H” (1)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          JANE TRICHE MILAZZO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Claimant Jeffrey Jenkins's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 39); Limitation Petitioners' Motion for Summary Judgment on Claimant Jeffrey Jenkins's punitive damages claim (Doc. 100); and Claimant Jeffrey Jenkins's Motion for Summary Judgment on Limitation of Liability (Doc. 97). For the following reasons, the Motions are DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         This action arises out of an incident in which the M/V PINTAIL capsized, allegedly causing the death of a River Construction Inc. (“River Construction”) operator, James D. Swafford, and injuring a River Construction welder, Jeffrey Jenkins. The incident occurred on December 30, 2015 when the PINTAIL's motor stalled while it was being operated on the Mississippi River by River Construction employees. On June 30, 2016, Magnolia Fleet, L.L.C. (“Magnolia Fleet”), as Owner, and River Construction, as Operator, of the M/V PINTAIL (collectively, “Petitioners”) filed a Complaint for Exoneration or Limitation of Liability. On July 12, 2016, this Court issued a stay of the prosecution of any proceedings outside of the limitation action. Claimants Carla Guileyardo, Jeffrey Jenkins, American Longshore Mutual Association, Ltd., and Carl Swafford answered with claims in this matter. The claims of Carla Guileyardo have been settled, and the claims of Carl Swafford have been dismissed.

         Now before the Court are three motions. In the first, Claimant Jeffrey Jenkins has adopted a Motion by former Claimant Carla Guileyardo, arguing that River Construction is not entitled to limitation of liability because it is not an owner of the PINTAIL. In the second Motion, Petitioners seek dismissal of Claimant Jenkins's claim for punitive damages. Petitioners allege that notwithstanding Jenkins's classification as a seaman or longshoreman, he cannot succeed in his claim for punitive damages. In the third, Jenkins argues that Petitioners are not entitled to limitation of liability. This Court will consider each Motion in turn.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”[1] A genuine issue of fact exists only “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[2]

         In determining whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment, the Court views facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draws all reasonable inferences in his favor.[3] “If the moving party meets the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce evidence or designate specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial.”[4] Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.”[5] “In response to a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate the manner in which that evidence supports that party's claim, and such evidence must be sufficient to sustain a finding in favor of the non-movant on all issues as to which the non-movant would bear the burden of proof at trial.”[6] “We do not . . . in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.”[7] Additionally, “[t]he mere argued existence of a factual dispute will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion.”[8]

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         I. Jenkins's Motion to Dismiss

         Guileyardo filed a Motion to Dismiss, or alternatively for Summary Judgment, arguing that River Construction is not the owner, owner pro hac vice, or bareboat charterer of the M/V PINTAIL and therefore should not be entitled to seek limitation of liability. Jenkins subsequently adopted this Motion as his own. Despite styling this Motion as a motion to dismiss, both parties have attached evidence outside the pleadings, which this Court has chosen not to exclude. Accordingly, the Motion is converted to a summary judgment motion.[9] River Construction had ample opportunity to respond and present evidence as demonstrated by the exhibits attached to its opposition.

         In this Motion, Jenkins argues that River Construction did not have the ownership or control over the M/V PINTAIL required under the Limitation of Liability Act. He points out that River Construction's Complaint for Limitation alleges only that it was the operator of the PINTAIL. River Construction argues that it was an owner pro hac vice of the PINTAIL and is therefor e entitled to limitation of liability.

         The Limitation of Liability Act provides that “the liability of the owner of a vessel for any claim, debt, or liability described in subsection (b) shall not exceed the value of the vessel and pending freight.”[10] An “owner” is defined as including “a charterer that mans, supplies, and navigates a vessel at the charterer's own expense or by the charterer's own procurement.”[11] “Courts have expanded the definition of owner or charterer to encompass parties in analogous situations who exercise dominion and control over a vessel and are therefore owners pro hac vice even if not technically charterers.”[12] Courts have held that:

[A]n “owner” for the purposes of limitation of liability is one who is subjected to a shipowner's liability because of his exercises of dominion over [i.e., relationship to] the vessel. In other words, an operator with significant management and operational control over a vessel may seek exoneration from or limitation of liability when it acts as a manager of the vessel or acquires work for and dispatches the vessel.[13]

         The parties dispute whether River Construction's had the requisite management and operational control over the M/V PINTAIL to claim limitation of liability.

         River Construction is wholly owned by its president, William Wiedner, III. Magnolia Fleet is owned by William Wiedner, III; his father, William Wiedner, IV; and John Stewart. William Wiedner, IV is the president of Magnolia Fleet. The M/V PINTAIL was typically moored on a dock owned by Magnolia Fleet on the west bank of the Mississippi River. River Construction kept several barges on the east bank of the river and used the Magnolia Fleet facility to access those barges. River Construction employees frequently used the PINTAIL to cross to the east bank of the river. The parties testified that there was no written or oral agreement between Magnolia Fleet and River Construction regarding use of the PINTAIL, but the companies had an informal, unspoken understanding regarding its use. River Construction had unlimited access to the PINTAIL with no requirement that it ask permission from Magnolia Fleet to use the vessel. Indeed, the keys were stored under the seat. An employee of River Construction testified that he operated the PINTAIL on a daily basis. When it was operating the PINTAIL, River Construction used its own crew and was often performing work for its own customers. River Construction, however, did not make any formal payment for its use of the PINTAIL. Instead, the companies ...


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