823 F.2d 660 (1st Cir. 1987), 86-2019, Clauson v. Smith

Docket Nº:86-2019.
Citation:823 F.2d 660
Party Name:Charles CLAUSON, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. Robert D. SMITH, Defendant, Appellee.
Case Date:July 07, 1987
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

Page 660

823 F.2d 660 (1st Cir. 1987)

Charles CLAUSON, Plaintiff, Appellant,


Robert D. SMITH, Defendant, Appellee.

No. 86-2019.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

July 7, 1987

Argued June 3, 1987.

As Amended July 17, 1987.

David B. Kaplan, with whom Thomas M. Bond, Chelsea, Mass., Paul V. Gallogly and Lovett, Schefrin & Gallogly, Providence, R.I., were on brief, for plaintiff, appellant.

Steven E. Snow with whom George Cameron Nixon, Erica M. Eisinger and Tillinghast, Collins & Graham, Providence, R.I., were on brief, for defendant, appellee.

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Before COFFIN, DAVIS [*] and SELYA, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

Before the birth of Christ, the elegist Sextus Propertius had told all of Rome--or that part of Rome which was prone to listen--that "the seaman's story is [one] of tempest." This appeal comprises yet another proof of that enduring wisdom.


Charles Clauson, plaintiff-appellant, was severely injured on June 9, 1980 while working aboard the F/V David D. The vessel was captained by its owner, Robert D. Smith, defendant-appellee. On October 2, 1985, more than five years later, Clauson filed suit against Smith for bodily injury in federal district court. Clauson's complaint contained three counts: negligence under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. Sec. 688; unseaworthiness; and maintenance and cure.

By the time the case was reached, the parties had resolved the matter of maintenance and cure. 1 The district court held an evidentiary hearing as to the timeliness of the Jones Act claim. Finding this count to be time-barred, the court dismissed it and discharged the jury. A bench trial ensued on the cause of action for unseaworthiness. At the close of all the evidence, the court exonerated Smith on the merits. The plaintiff appeals both the dismissal of Count I and the verdict on Count II.

We review the factbound findings of the district court sitting without a jury in admiralty jurisdiction under the "clearly erroneous" standard of Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a). See McAllister v. United States, 348 U.S. 19, 20, 75 S.Ct. 6, 7, 99 L.Ed. 20 (1954); EAC Timberlane v. Pisces, Ltd., 745 F.2d 715, 722 (1st Cir.1984); Pinto v. M/S Fernwood, 507 F.2d 1327, 1329 (1st Cir.1974). In this case, such scrutiny reveals that the trial stayed well on course. Accordingly, we affirm.


The Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. Sec. 688, incorporates by reference the three year limitations period contained in the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. Sec. 56. The plaintiff concedes that this period expired before he sued. He explains, however, that the circumstances are such that the defendant, Smith, should have been estopped from raising the preclusory bar.

We know on the best of authority that equitable estoppel can toll the statute of limitations in FELA suits. Glus v. Brooklyn E. Dist. Terminal, 359 U.S. 231, 232-35, 79 S.Ct. 760, 761-63, 3 L.Ed.2d 770 (1959). Inasmuch as the Jones Act "borrows" FELA's statute of limitations, see Engel v. Davenport, 271 U.S. 33, 38-39, 46 S.Ct. 410, 412-13, 70 L.Ed. 813 (1926), it must follow that estoppel is equally available to a late-arriving seaman in a Jones Act case. The caselaw so holds. See, e.g., Sanchez v. Loffland Bros. Co., 626 F.2d 1228, 1231 (5th Cir.1980) (per curiam), cert. denied, 452 U.S. 962, 101 S.Ct. 3112, 69 L.Ed.2d 974 (1981); Burke v. Gateway Clipper, Inc., 441 F.2d 946, 948-49 (3d Cir.1971) (per curiam). We join in this view.

Generally speaking, there are four elements to a classic estoppel in pais:

(1) The party to be estopped must know the facts; (2) he must intend that his conduct shall be acted on or must so act that the party asserting the estoppel has a right to believe it is so intended; (3) the latter must be ignorant of the true facts; and (4) he must rely on the former's conduct to his injury.

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Hampton v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 279 F.2d 100, 104 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 364 U.S. 882, 81 S.Ct. 170, 5 L.Ed.2d 103 (1960). Put another way, one may be "estopped from denying the consequences of his conduct where that conduct has been such as to induce another to change his position in good faith or such that a reasonable man would rely upon the representations made." Bergeron v. Mansour, 152 F.2d 27, 30 (1st Cir.1945). See also Sea-Land Service, Inc., v. R.V. D'Alfonso Co., 727 F.2d 1, 2 (1st Cir.1984); Precious Metals Assoc. Inc. v. Commodity Futures Trading Comm'n, 620 F.2d 900, 908-09 (1st Cir.1980). In the present context--forfeiture of the defendant's right to repose--estoppel boils down to the idea that "the conduct of the defendant must be so misleading as to cause the plaintiff's failure to file suit." Sanchez, 626 F.2d at 1231 (footnote omitted).

Although estoppel was available to Clauson in theory, there was little in the way of proof to suggest its availability in practice. It is true that Samuel Snow, the defendant's insurance broker, met with the appellant at Smith's home approximately three months after the mishap. There was evidence that the injury was talked about in general terms, that the possible need for future surgery was brought up, and that Snow asked the appellant to assemble some medical reports and bills. According to Clauson, the conversation went, in part, along the following lines:

As far as when I wanted to settle, Mr. Snow just said that any time that I was ready that I could get together with him, but I didn't want to settle then.... 2

There was no evidence that the statute of limitations was mentioned, let alone discussed. Indeed, Clauson assured Snow and Smith that there was no possibility of a suit under any circumstances.

The appellant seems to lay great emphasis on some cursory comment, during this same conversation, about the status of an injury which he sustained in 1972. The allusion was cryptic to begin with; there was, for example, no indication of how the 1972 injury happened or where it occurred. Moreover, the musings were contradictory: at one point while on the stand, Clauson flatly stated that there was "no discussion about settlement" meant the 1972 injury. The district judge was plainly entitled to discount this enigmatic testimony. It proved next to nothing.

There was little more of any consequence stated or implied at this meeting. The three did not meet again. Clauson and the broker never discussed matters further within the limitations period, nor did the claimant deliver the requested medical data. Smith, himself, spoke with both Clauson and Snow from time to time, but was not alleged to have said or done anything to foster an estoppel.

We find it unnecessary to spell out the minutiae of the record in any greater detail. The district court ruled, on meagre facts such as those which we have delineated, that there was "no basis" for prohibiting a limitations defense. The court found no evidence either of deceptive conduct or of reliance sufficient to warrant this drastic a measure. We concur. Taking Snow's and Smith's conduct and statements, as described by the plaintiff, there was nothing of so misleading a nature as to induce a reasonable person to rely to his detriment. Particularly in the context at hand, the bland statement "any time [you are] ready" seems too frail a craft to carry the cargo which the appellant assigns to it. Furthermore, Clauson never said that he changed his position (i.e., held off filing suit) because of what Snow or Smith had told him, and there is nothing in the record which would demand an inference that such was the case. Thus, two key elements of an estoppel--misrepresentation or

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misleading conduct, on the one hand, and reliance, on the second hand, were lacking. 3

By their very character, claims of estoppel tend to be case-specific. "The nature of the representations and of the conduct of the defendant are of crucial significance in determining whether the plaintiff is to be allowed to invoke this equitable principle." Sanchez, 626 F.2d at 1231. In these important respects, the case at bar offers up far too little. Some definite, unequivocal behavior must be shown--conduct fairly calculated to mask the truth or to lull an unsuspecting person into a false sense of security. Equally, it must be demonstrated that the party seeking to enforce an estoppel relied to his detriment on the interdicted behavior. Neither side of the equation was fulfilled here. The law does not permit the gossamer strands of generalized discussion, taken alone, to tie the defense of limitations beyond reach; nor can reliance be implied out of desultory palaver, without more. So relaxed a rule, were we to recognize it, would be no rule at all. It would serve no purpose other than to leave injured persons free to sue without time constraints of any kind. We are not prepared to bury statutes of limitations at sea in such a casual manner.

It was for Clauson to carry the devoir of persuasion in order to demonstrate that an estoppel occurred. See Ross v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 169 F.2d 483, 496 (1st Cir.1948) ("it seems clear that a party who relies on an estoppel has the burden of proving its component elements"). He manifestly failed in this task. Accordingly, the district court had little choice but to dismiss the Jones Act count.


The court below was left, as are we, with plaintiff's claim for unseaworthiness, a nonstatutory claim which invokes general principles of maritime law. We review the facts of the accident briefly.

The F/V David D was rigged for trawling off the starboard side. On the day in question, only Clauson and Smith were aboard. They had fished side-by-side for more than a decade. The men were using a winch to hoist the fishing nets. The system was a simple one. In order graphically to demonstrate it, we have reproduced as appendices two sketches which were marked for identification at the trial: Exhibits 1 (Appendix I) and 5 (Appendix II). Although these appendices are...

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