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Continental Insurance Co. v. L&L Marine Transportation, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

February 8, 2018


         SECTION "F"



         Before the Court is the parties' proposed joint case management order and Joshua Deranger's motion to bifurcate the trial. For the following reasons, the case management order is ADOPTED and the motion to bifurcate is GRANTED consistent with this Order and Reasons. The liability portion of the case will be tried as a bench trial, but the damages portion, if any, will be tried at a later date to be set by the Court. The Court defers rulings on what forum will hear Deranger's damages claims, and whether remaining damages issues tried in this Court will be tried to the bench or to a jury.


         Three vessels were tasked to transport one barge on the Mississippi River. One of those vessels allided with a bridge and sank, rendering it a total loss. Now, the vessels' owners, insurers, and those personally injured during the allision are seeking to determine whether the other two vessels were negligent and unseaworthy, and thus liable for the resulting losses and injuries. These issues are scheduled to be tried on March 5, 2018. In an effort to clarify the trial issues, the Court ordered the parties to submit a joint case management order and invited them to file a motion to bifurcate, if needed. The parties submitted a joint case management order and Joshua Deranger filed a contested motion to bifurcate.

         The issues before the Court stem back to December 29, 2013, when three vessels, M/V MISS DOROTHY, M/V ANGELA RAE, and M/V FREEDOM transported a barge, FSP 101, southbound on the Mississippi River. FSB 101 is owned by Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc. CGB hired the vessels to transport the barge and its cargo from Reserve, LA to Convent, LA. The vessels successfully navigated the barge to Convent and had offloaded the cargo.

         While heading southbound to LaPlace, the master of MISS DOROTHY, Captain Joseph Colomb, instructed his deckhands, Joshua Deranger and Matt Lynch, to change the fuel filters of the starboard and port engines. When Deranger and Lynch changed the filters of the starboard engine, they shut it down, allegedly causing a drag on the flotilla. When the flotilla attempted to pass under the Sunshine Bride, MISS DOROTHY allided with the bridge. The vessel sustained a puncture in the hull, which caused water to rapidly enter the engine room, ceasing operation of the port engine and the generator, eventually resulting in a total loss for the vessel. The bridge was also damaged. Joshua Deranger, the deckhand on the MISS DOROTHY, was still in the engine room during the allision. When the water flooded the room, it moved a storage box, trapping Deranger's leg between the box and the starboard engine. Matt Lynch helped to free him, but Deranger's lower right leg was injured. He sustained a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula, and ultimately underwent surgery that placed a rod and screws in his tibia. Captain Colomb also alleges personal injuries. Following the allision, the vessel owners and insurers, as well as those injured, filed a number of claims against each other in five separate actions (14-2967, 15-1473, 15-1870, 15-1942, 15-4423), which have been consolidated into one lead case, 14-2967.

         The insurers of the owner (Western Rivers Boat Management, Inc.) of the sunken MISS DOROTHY initiated the present case on December 29, 2014. The insurers-Continental Insurance Company, National Union Fire Insurance Company, and Starr Liability and Indemnity-filed a complaint in this Court against L&L Marine Transportation, Inc. (operator of Angela), C.J.L., Inc. (owner of Angela), River Ventures, LLC (owner and operator FREEDOM), M/V ANGELA RAE in rem, M/V FREEDOM in rem, and FSB 101 in rem. They alleged that the defendants caused the allision, were unseaworthy, and were negligent in their training of the master and crew, equipping the vessels with proper navigational tools, and in their navigation. In a separate action, C.J.L. and L&L filed a complaint for exoneration from, or in the alternative limitation of liability, of M/V ANGELA RAE. Five days later, River Ventures did the same for M/V FREEDOM. Immediately, the Court issued an injunction restraining the prosecution of any claims involving ANGELA RAE or FREEDOM, or their insurers and underwriters, until the Court determined whether the vessels' liability should be limited or exonerated. Shortly thereafter, the Court consolidated these claims into the master case (14-2967).

         In response to the limitations actions, the other parties filed answers, complaints, and counterclaims.[1] Notably, Joshua Deranger, the MISS DOROTHY deckhand injured during the collision, answered the complaints and filed counter-claims and third-party complaints against the other parties alleging that his injuries were the product of all three vessels' negligence in either causing or failing to prevent the allision. Previous to the limitation proceedings, Deranger filed his complaint for damages in Louisiana state court at the Twenty-Third Judicial District Court for the Parish of St. James, invoking the state court's jurisdiction pursuant to the “saving to suitors” clause of 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) and requested a trial by jury. When the vessel owners filed limitation actions in this Court, the state court proceedings were stayed (and still are, pending resolution of the limitation actions). In his responses to the limitation complaint, he again requested a jury and asked to adjudicate the claims between him and his Jones Act employer in state court. He also filed a separate request for a jury trial on December 18, 2015. Likewise, in his answer to the limitation actions, Captain Joseph Colomb sued the other vessel interests, claiming negligence for his personal injuries. He also requested a jury trial.

         The issues before the Court are of two different characters: liability and damages. In an effort to clarify the issues to be presented at trial on March 5, 2018 and to better understand the parties' positions, the Court ordered that the parties submit a joint proposed case management order by January 26, 2018, accompanied by a memorandum, that outline the issues the parties' anticipate to present at trial. The Court also invited the parties' to submit any motions to bifurcate. Accordingly, the parties submitted their joint case management order, and outlined the liability issues to be tried. The parties are in agreement that the liability issues will be tried by the Court. The parties disagree, however, on the manner in which damages will be tried. They contest whether the trial should be bifurcated, whether some of the damages issues will be tried in state court, and if the damages are tried in federal court, whether there will be a jury or bench trial.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b) provides that “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize, the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues, claims, crossclaims, counterclaims, or third-party claims.” However, district courts must be mindful that bifurcation is only appropriate if the issues are “so distinct and separable from the others that a trial of it alone may be had without injustice.” Laitram Corp. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 791 F.Supp. 113, 115 (E.D. La. 1992) (quoting Swofford v. B&W, Inc., 336 F.2d 406, 415 (5th Cir. 1964)). Even if bifurcation would promote judicial economy, it is still inappropriate if it would cause unnecessarily delay or additional expense. Id. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for a court to bifurcate the trial between the liability and damage issue. See Swofford, 336 F.2d at 415 (5th Cir. 1964); State of Ala. V. Blue Bird Body Co., Inc., 573 F.2d 309, 311-12 (5th Cir. 1978).



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