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In re Complaint of Parker Towing Company Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 8, 2018




         This matter comes before the Court on claimant Christopher James Williams' Motion to Lift Stay (doc. 17). Claimant PowerSouth Energy Cooperative and defendant, Parker Towing Company, Inc., have filed responses in opposition to the Motion (docs. 22 & 23), and Williams has filed a reply (doc. 27). The Motion is now ripe.

         I. Background.

         On or about June 5, 2017, the M/V TOUCHSTONE ENERGY, a vessel owned and operated by Parker Towing Company, Inc., was operating in the Tombigbee River, near Jackson, Alabama. During those operations, Christopher Williams, a member of the vessel's crew, sustained injuries when he was struck by a cable while working aboard the vessel. At the time, the M/V TOUCHSTONE ENERGY was securing two barges to the dock of the Lowman Power Plant owned and operated by PowerSouth Energy Cooperative. Pursuant to a contract of affreightment between Parker Towing and PowerSouth, Parker Towing was engaged to transport coal via towboats and barges to the Lowman facility.

         On September 27, 2017, Williams commenced a lawsuit (the “State Court Action”) seeking damages under the Jones Act and general maritime law against Parker Towing and PowerSouth, arising out of the accident and injuries he incurred while working aboard the M/V TOUCHSTONE ENERGY. The complaint, which was filed in the Circuit Court of Washington County, Alabama, alleged causes of action predicated on the negligence of Parker Towing and/or PowerSouth and the unseaworthiness of the vessel.

         On November 6, 2017, Parker Towing filed the instant Complaint for Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability (doc. 1) in this District Court, pursuant to 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501 et seq. Three days later, upon review and approval of Parker Towing's Ad Interim Stipulation for Value in the sum of $314, 000, the undersigned directed as follows:

“The further prosecution of any pending actions, suits or legal proceedings in any court whatsoever, and the institution and prosecution of any suits, actions or legal proceedings of any nature and description whatsoever in any court, except in this proceeding for exoneration from or limitation of liability, against Parker Towing, its controllers, underwriters, insurers, or the M/V TOUCHSTONE ENERGY, in respect of any claim arising out of or in connection with that vessel's voyage on or about June 5, 2017, be and the same are hereby STAYED AND RESTRAINED until the hearing and determination of this action.”

(Doc. 4, at 2.) One effect of the November 9 Order was to stay the State Court Action.

         In these exoneration/limitation proceedings, both PowerSouth and Williams have filed claims against Parker Towing. Specifically, PowerSouth invokes contract provisions stating that Parker Towing was responsible for ensuring that the barges were properly secured, and alternatively asserts common-law claims of indemnity and contribution for all sums that PowerSouth may be required to pay as a result of Williams' claims. For his part, Williams asserts claims against Parker Towing on theories of negligence, unseaworthiness of the vessel, failure to pay maintenance and cure, and punitive damages.

         Now Williams comes forward with a Motion to Lift Stay, in which he seeks leave of court to continue pursuing the State Court Action against Parker Towing and PowerSouth in accordance with the statute conferring exclusive jurisdiction on federal district courts for “[a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.” 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1). Parker Towing and PowerSouth oppose Williams' request to lift the stay.

         II. Analysis.

         Under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501 et seq., “[f]ederal courts have exclusive admiralty jurisdiction to determine whether the vessel owner is entitled to limited liability.” Beiswenger Enterprises Corp. v. Carletta, 86 F.3d 1032, 1036 (11th Cir. 1996). In such an action, persons asserting claims against the vessel “form a concursus that allows the district court to determine the liability of the owner to each individual in a single proceeding, constraining the total liability to the value of the vessel.” Offshore of the Palm Beaches, Inc. v. Lynch, 741 F.3d 1251, 1257 (11th Cir. 2014); see also Beiswenger, 86 F.3d at 1036 (“If the vessel owner is found liable, but limitation is granted, the admiralty court distributes the limitation fund among the damage claimants in an equitable proceeding known as a concursus.”).[1]

         Notwithstanding these principles, the Eleventh Circuit has long observed that “this exclusivity of admiralty jurisdiction rubs up against the ‘saving to suitors' clause, which grants to the district courts original jurisdiction over admiralty cases, ‘saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.' 28 U.S.C. § 1333.” Offshore of the Palm Beaches, 741 F.3d at 1258. This clause “embodies a presumption in favor of jury trials and common law remedies in the forum of the claimant's choice.” Id. (citation omitted). “Thus, a certain tension between the exclusive jurisdiction vested in admiralty courts to determine the vessel owner's right to limited liability and the saving to suitors clause has developed.” Beiswenger, 86 F.3d at 1037. To resolve this tension, courts have carved out certain narrow exceptions to the exclusivity provisions of the Limitation Act.

         The parties in the case at bar are in agreement that this action presents what has come to be known as a “multiple-claims-inadequate-fund” situation. Indeed, there are “multiple claims” because each of PowerSouth and Williams is asserting separate claims against Parker Towing, including Williams' personal injury claims and PowerSouth's claims of contribution and indemnity. See Beiswenger, 86 F.3d at 1042 (“to determine whether a multiple-claims-inadequate-fund situation exists, potential claims for indemnity or contribution from the vessel owner's co-defendants must be separately considered”). Moreover, there is an “inadequate fund” because it does not appear that “the limitation fund exceeds the aggregate amount of all the possible claims against the vessel owner.” Id. at 1037.[2] The ...

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