Federal Court Denies Vessel Owners Opportunity to Limit Liability Under Maritime Law

The ports in Washington are often used for cruise ship travel and commercial fishing, but many docks are also frequently used for recreational purposes. Recently, a federal court limited the availability of maritime jurisdiction to defendant vessel owners who sought to limit their own liability by moving the personal injury suit from state court to federal court and seeking protection under the federal Limitation of Liability Act. The Federal District Court agreed with the other parties in the suit who claimed this was not a proper maritime law case. The vessel owners filed an appeal, but the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision.

The actions leading to this case (Tandon v. Ulbrick) involved two groups of people who were visiting a local recreational set of shops on a floating dock. The vessel owners of the first group transported several people and met up with another friend who arrived by a vehicle at a restaurant on the floating dock. The second group of people, which included the man who was eventually injured, were also at the same location. Both parties left the restaurant at the same time, and one member of the first party fell while trying to board the boat. Members of the second party laughed at the man who fell, aggravating members of the first party. The second group boarded their water taxi and went to the shore. The members of that party claimed that the first party followed them in hot pursuit while yelling at them. The members of the first party claimed that they were heading to the dock as they normally would, but they pulled over when it was discovered the gentleman who fell was bleeding. At the dock, the members of both parties engaged in a fight, causing the injured party to be knocked in the head by a beer bottle and falling off into the water. The injured party claimed he was held down in the water to the point of asphyxiation and suffered severe injuries as a result.

The injured man initially filed suit against the operators of the marina, but he eventually added the vessel owners in the first party and their guests who were present. All personal injury actions were initially filed in state court, but the vessel owners sought to move the case to federal court in an attempt to use the Limitation of Liability Act, which would have capped their damages to the value of their boat ($285,000). To see if the forum was proper, the District Court looked at the location as well as whether the parties involved in the fight had a connection to maritime activity or commerce. Both the federal district court and federal court of appeals agreed that the dock was still tethered to land and that the fight, while on a dock, did not disrupt maritime commerce.

The Court of Appeals assessed the purpose of the Limitation of Liability Act, which was enacted to encourage vessel owners to invest in maritime trade. By limiting the liability to the value of the vessel and pending freight, vessel owners were provided a partial shield from the negligence of their crew members. The Court looked at case precedent, determining that, while vessel owners can bring claims filed against them from state court to federal court, the federal court must naturally have jurisdiction under admiralty law. In the case involving the fight, the Court of Appeals wrote that the location of the fight and whether it was on land or sea was not enough to deny or approve admiralty jurisdiction. The jurisdiction hinged on whether there was a significant relationship to maritime activities and commerce. Ultimately, it was ruled there was not a significant relationship in the present case, and the district court's ruling was upheld.

The Washington pleasure boat and yacht lawyers, Gordon Webb and John Merriam, are experienced admiralty attorneys you can trust. We will aggressively pursue all available avenues of relief for your injury, whether you are a crew member or passenger traveling for leisure. Call today for a free, confidential consultation at 877.800.1007.

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