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Orion Marine Construction, Inc. v. Carroll

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

March 20, 2019

ORION MARINE CONSTRUCTION, INC., as owner of Barges M-1801, M-1802, M-1701 and M-1402, their engines, tackle, appurtenances, equipment, etc., in a cause of exoneration from or limitation of liability, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
ELIZABETH CARROLL, Defendant, DANIEL F. BOWEN, et al., Claimants, MARK DAWSON, CHRISTINE M. DAWSON, Claimants - Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 8:15-cv-01136-MSS-TGW

          Before MARCUS, NEWSOM, and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.

          Newsom, Circuit Judge.

         This admiralty appeal requires us to navigate uncharted waters in order to determine what constitutes sufficient notice of a claim under the Shipowner's Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501, et seq. The Act establishes a procedure by which a shipowner can limit its liability for certain claims involving one of its vessels to the value of the vessel plus its then-pending freight. Id. § 30505(a). Importantly here, to invoke the Act's protection, the shipowner must bring a limitation-of-liability action in federal court "within 6 months after a claimant gives the owner written notice of a claim." Id. § 30511(a). If the owner meets the six-month statutory deadline, and then creates a qualifying limitation "fund," all related lawsuits against the owner "shall cease," leaving the claimants to pursue their rights in the limitation proceeding. Id. § 30511.

         In connection with a large bridge-construction project in Florida, Orion Marine Construction used four barges to drive piles into the seabed. After numerous local residents complained that their homes had been damaged by vibrations caused by the barges' pile-driving activities, Orion filed a limitation action under the Act. Claimants Mark and Christine Dawson moved to dismiss Orion's suit, arguing that Orion had received adequate notice of the claims against it more than six months before it filed, that the action was therefore time-barred, and, accordingly, that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The district court agreed and granted the Dawsons' motion to dismiss. We reverse.

         This appeal presents several interesting and important questions about the meaning and operation of the Act:

         First, does § 30511(a)'s six-month filing deadline erect a jurisdictional barrier to suit, as the Dawsons contend and the district court concluded? We hold that it does not, and that it is instead (like most timely-filing requirements) a non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule.

         Second, what constitutes "written notice of a claim" within the meaning of § 30511(a)? We hold that in order to trigger the six-month filing period, a claimant (not someone else) must provide the shipowner or its agent (not someone else) with written (not oral) notice that reveals a "reasonable possibility" that his claim will exceed the value of the vessel(s) at issue.

         Third, does a shipowner incur a duty to investigate known or potential claims immediately upon receipt of a claimant's notice, as the district court concluded? We hold that it does not, and that the duty to investigate arises only if the notice reveals the required "reasonable possibility."

         Finally, did Orion receive the statutorily required written notice-revealing a reasonable possibility of claims that would exceed the value of its barges-more than six months before it filed its limitation action? We hold that it did not, and, accordingly, that its suit was timely filed.

         I

         A

         The pertinent facts here are undisputed. In 2011, Orion―a company specializing in marine construction―contracted with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to rebuild the Pinellas Bayway Bridge in Pinellas County, Florida. As part of the project, Orion's barges were used to drive concrete piles into the bay floor. Hundreds of local residents complained that the vibrations created by Orion's pile-driving damaged their surrounding properties, and 247 of them eventually filed formal claims in the limitation action that gave rise to this appeal.

         Early on, though, the claims trickled in slowly. Between March 2012 and June 2014, only nine residents lodged complaints-typically alleging cracks in their homes, patios, and driveways, or leaks in their pools-with either Orion, FDOT, or Orion's third-party administrator, FARA Insurance. We focus here on these first nine claimants because they (alone among the 247) made their complaints before November 11, 2014-and thus, critically, more than six months before Orion filed suit on May 11, 2015.

         In response to a few of these early complaints, Orion dispatched an investigator to assess the alleged damage. Some of the cracks that he observed, he reported, were "old," and others were "minor" and "cosmetic." As for one of the reported pool leaks, he found that it was "just a crack in a PVC pipe." Orion installed vibration monitors at two residents' homes; the numbers came back "low" at one and "very, very low" at the other.

         According to Orion, around December 2014 or January 2015 it began to receive property-damage claims "in bulk" from a public adjuster, beginning with 11 additional complaints during those two months alone. This flood of new claims, Orion says, prompted it to file its limitation action on May 11, 2015.

         B

         Mark and Christine Dawson-who lodged one of the original nine complaints-moved to dismiss Orion's action on the ground that it was untimely and, therefore, that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Orion's action was time-barred, they asserted, because Orion had received "written notice of a claim" within the meaning of 46 U.S.C. § 30511(a) prior to November 11, 2014―and thus earlier than the statutorily specified six-months mark before it filed. Orion responded that none of the nine original claims provided it with proper notice under the Act because (1) a number of the complaints were not "written," as the Act requires, and (2) in any event, the complaints failed to reveal a "reasonable possibility" that the claims would exceed the aggregate value of the four vessels used during the bridge construction.

         Because it "lacked sufficient factual information" about which of the original nine claims were made when, to whom, and in what form, the district court denied the Dawsons' motion without prejudice and ordered the parties to conduct limited discovery on the timeliness issue. Discovery revealed a hodge-podge of formal and informal oral and written complaints, which were submitted to various employees at Orion, FDOT, and FARA. When FDOT received complaints, it memorialized them in written summaries or emails, which it then forwarded to Orion. FARA typically responded to the complaints that it received by acknowledging them, disclaiming any assumption of coverage, advising that construction was ongoing, requesting copies of-or that the claimant maintain records of-photos and repair quotes, and agreeing to investigate further. In an effort to impose some order-and to facilitate our own analysis-we will group the complaints into the following categories: (a) oral complaints that were (i) made to and memorialized in writing by Orion or (ii) made to and memorialized in writing by FARA or FDOT and then forwarded to Orion; and (b) written complaints that were (i) made to FARA and then forwarded to Orion or (ii) made to FDOT and then forwarded to Orion.

         Based on the information obtained during discovery, Orion emphasized that none of the nine original claimants had provided "written notice" to it and that only four had provided written notice to anyone-two to FDOT and two to FARA. Moreover, Orion said, none of the nine presented specific damage computations (in any form) before November 11, 2014. Estimates that Orion received after the completion of the bridge revealed the total amount of claimed damages by written notice to be $164, 901.10 and the total from all pre-November 11, 2014 notices (both oral and written) to be $330, 046.22.[1] Because neither number exceeds the aggregate value of the four barges used during the construction―$1, 258, 217.00―Orion contended that the nine original claimants' notices didn't start the six-month clock on its obligation to file a limitation action. Rather, Orion reiterated, "[i]t was not until a public adjuster began signing up claimants in droves in December 2014 . . . that [it] was reasonably on notice the claims may exceed the value of its vessels." Accordingly, Orion argued, its May 11, 2015 filing fell comfortably within the six-month period prescribed by the Act.

         C

         Following discovery, the Dawsons renewed their motion to dismiss, reiterating that because Orion's action was untimely under § 30511(a), the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case. The district court granted the motion and dismissed Orion's complaint, concluding that "Orion was aware or should have been aware that claims against it would likely exceed the value of the vessel[s] . . . certainly no later than November 11, 2014," and, accordingly, that its limitation action filed on May 11, 2015 was "untimely and must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction."

         In so holding, the district court admitted that it was "[w]ithout any case law directly analogous to the case at hand" and, accordingly, that it had to "extrapolate from the available precedent to determine whether the nine [original] complaints constituted notice." In so doing, it considered all nine pre-November 11, 2014 notices "in the aggregate" and the sufficiency of those communications "as a whole." Significantly, as to the form of notice, the district court concluded "that both the written complaints Orion received directly from the [c]laimants or by forward from the FDOT, and the memorialized oral complaints Orion received [either directly or from FDOT or FARA] constitute 'written' notice under the Act." The district court further reasoned that the complaints that Orion received before November 11, 2014 triggered a duty-which it found Orion breached-to investigate any "potential" additional claims that might be asserted by owners of other properties in the surrounding area.

         Orion timely appealed to this Court, arguing that the district court erred in concluding (1) that § 30511(a)'s six-month filing requirement is jurisdictional and (2) that the nine original claimants provided adequate notice under the Act. In support of the latter contention, Orion argued that the district court erred by holding (a) that even oral complaints, if later memorialized, satisfy the Act's "written notice" requirement, (b) that the nine pre-November 11, 2014 notices identified "limitable" claims even though the record revealed no reasonable possibility that the alleged damages (no matter how measured) would exceed the value of the barges used during construction, and (c) that Orion was obligated to investigate the possibility of additional claims immediately upon receipt of the initial complaints.

         We consider those issues in turn.

         II

         We begin, as we must, with jurisdiction. A number of courts-including at least two of our sister circuits-have held, as the district court did here, that § 30511(a)'s six-month time bar constitutes a jurisdictional limitation. See, e.g., In re Eckstein Marine Serv., L.L.C., 672 F.3d 310, 315 (5th Cir. 2012); Cincinnati Gas & Elec. Co. v. Abel, 533 F.2d 1001, 1003 (6th Cir. 1976). We disagree.

         Not long ago, in Secretary v. Preston, 873 F.3d 877 (11th Cir. 2017), we had occasion to survey the Supreme Court's recent precedent outlining the distinction between true jurisdictional limitations and non-jurisdictional "claim-processing" rules-and, in particular, concerning the jurisdictional-ness of statutory time bars. See id. at 881-82. What we said there-about ERISA's six-year statute of repose-applies here pretty much foursquare. As a general matter, we observed that in recent years, "the Supreme Court has set out to impose some discipline on the previously slippery use of the term 'jurisdictional.'" Id. at 881. "In so doing," we recounted, "the Court has emphasized-repeatedly-that statutory limitation periods and other filing deadlines 'ordinarily are not jurisdictional' and that a particular time bar should be treated as jurisdictional 'only if Congress has clearly stated that it is.'" Id. (quoting Musacchio v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 709, 716-17 (2016)). Establishing the required clear statement, we explained, is a tall task-a party must ...


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