886 F.2d 812 (6th Cir. 1989), 88-6102, Complaint of Midland Enterprises, Inc.

Docket Nº:88-6102.
Citation:886 F.2d 812
Party Name:In the Matter of the Complaint of MIDLAND ENTERPRISES, INC. HARTLEY MARINE CORPORATION, doing business as R & W Marine, for exoneration from or limitation of, liability, a corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Jana Marie BRASHER, as Administratrix of the Estate of Christopher Dale Brasher, deceased, on behalf of herself as Widow, on behalf of her
Case Date:September 29, 1989
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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886 F.2d 812 (6th Cir. 1989)

In the Matter of the Complaint of MIDLAND ENTERPRISES, INC.

HARTLEY MARINE CORPORATION, doing business as R & W Marine,

for exoneration from or limitation of, liability,

a corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

Jana Marie BRASHER, as Administratrix of the Estate of

Christopher Dale Brasher, deceased, on behalf of herself as

Widow, on behalf of her children John Christopher Brasher

and Robert W. Brasher, minors, Claimant-Appellee.

No. 88-6102.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 29, 1989

Argued June 16, 1989.

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Elmer Price argued, St. Louis, Mo., M. Greg Rains, McMurry & Livingston, Paducah, Ky., John R. Halpern, Gary Sacks, Goldstein & Price, St. Louis, Mo., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Sandor Korein, John C. Torjesen, Carr, Korein, Schlichter, Kunin & Montroy, St. Louis, Mo., John T. Carneal, Paducah, Ky., for claimant-appellee.

Before KENNEDY, GUY and NORRIS, Circuit Judges.

RALPH B. GUY, Jr., Circuit Judge.

On September 1, 1986, a collision occurred on the Tennessee River within the State of Tennessee involving the M/V Mike Creditor and its tow of fifteen barges and an unmanned jon boat. As a result of the collision, Christopher Dale Brasher was killed. Brasher had been mussel diving along the banks of the river.

Plaintiffs (Midland), the owners of the M/V Mike Creditor, filed a complaint on September 19, 1986, for exoneration from, or limitation of, liability. 46 U.S.C. Sec. 181, et seq. Midland also posted a bond in the amount of $146,461 allegedly equal to the value of the M/V Mike Creditor and its freight, in accordance with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Supplemental Rule F. As is required by the provisions of 46 U.S.C. Sec. 185, the district court then entered an order restraining prosecution of any suits against Midland arising out of the accident, and requiring that any claims arising from the collision be filed on or before December 20, 1986.

On October 24, 1986, claimant Jana Marie Brasher filed a claim on behalf of the estate of Christopher Dale Brasher. The claim alleged wrongful death and claimed pecuniary loss and loss of society on behalf of Jana Marie Brasher, John Christopher Brasher, age 3, and Robert W. Brasher, age 4, who are the widow and children of Christopher Dale Brasher. At the same time, an answer to Midland's complaint was also filed denying Midland's right to limit its liability, and also contesting the valuation placed on the M/V Mike Creditor and its freight. The Brasher claim was the only claim filed. Claimant then proceeded to file a motion seeking modification of the earlier restraining order so that she could prosecute her claim to judgment before a jury in an appropriate forum of her choice. This motion was granted on August 30, 1988, over the objections of plaintiffs and this appeal followed.

I.

In order to understand the issues presented in this appeal, it is necessary first to examine the "Limitation of Vessel Owner's Liability Act" (Limitation Act), 46 U.S.C. Sec. 181, et seq. The Act confers upon a vessel owner, when loss or damage occurs without its privity or knowledge, the right to limit its liability to the value of its interest in the vessel and the vessel's pending freight. The vessel owner may seek judgment for exoneration from or limitation of liability and, upon the filing of the complaint and the depositing of adequate surety for the ship and her freight, the district court must enjoin all other actions which relate to the subject of the limitation proceeding and require all persons who have claims to assert them in the district court. S & E Shipping Corp. v. Chesapeake & O. Ry., 678 F.2d 636, 642 (6th Cir.1982). The federal court's jurisdiction over the limitation action is exclusive. Langnes v. Green, 282 U.S. 531, 540, 51 S.Ct. 243, 246, 75 L.Ed. 520 (1931). The historical purpose of the Act, which was initially passed in 1851, was to encourage the development of a private maritime fleet and to protect the fledgling fleet from ruinous liability. The wrongful death claim filed in this case presents an action arising under, and governed by, federal maritime law because the death occurred on the Tennessee River within the admiralty jurisdiction of the United States. Exclusive admiralty jurisdiction was conferred by Congress

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upon the federal district courts. 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1333 provides in pertinent part:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of:

(1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.

(Emphasis added).

One of the remedies saved to suitors was the right to trial by jury and herein lies the tension between the Limitation Act which involves non-jury equity proceedings, and claims for personal injury or death which typically allow for jury trials. The courts have resolved this tension, to some degree at least, by allowing claimants to pursue their claims in the forum of their choice before juries under two sets of circumstances. First, if the limitation fund exceeds the aggregate of all claims, then claimants must be allowed to seek the forum of their choice. Lake Tankers Corp. v. Henn, 354 U.S. 147, 77 S.Ct. 1269, 1 L.Ed.2d 1246 (1957). As we stated in S & E Shipping, 678 F.2d at 643:

Where the limitation fund is sufficient to pay all potential claims, however, a concursus is unnecessary because the claimants need not compete among themselves for larger portions of a limited fund. This exception to the concursus procedure protects the claimant's right to a jury trial in the forum of his choice without undermining the Limitation Act's policy of limiting the shipowner's liability to the value of the vessel and its freight.

Second, if there is only one claimant, then the district court must dissolve its stay of other proceedings. Langnes v. Green, 282 U.S. at 541, 51 S.Ct. at 247.

The right of a claimant to pursue a claim in the forum of choice is not unfettered, however. Even in cases in which there is only one claimant or the limitation fund exceeds the aggregated claims, the district court will not lift the stay unless the claimant formally concedes that the district court has the exclusive jurisdiction to decide all limitation of liability issues. Ex parte Green, 286 U.S. 437, 52 S.Ct. 602, 76 L.Ed. 1212 (1932). Additionally, the claimant must concede that the value of the vessel and freight will be the limit of the fund available and that no res judicata arguments will be made based upon any state court judgment. Universal Towing Co. v. Barrale, 595 F.2d 414 (8th Cir.1979).

Recognizing these prerequisites to the lifting of the stay, claimant, at the time she filed her motion to modify the stay, also filed the following stipulations:

Jana Marie Brasher, Administratrix of the Estate of Christopher Dale Brasher, deceased, stipulates in this case in support of her Motion to Modify Stay, as follows:

1. That this Court has full and exclusive jurisdiction to determine the value of the M/V MIKE CREDITOR sought to be limited in these proceedings or the value of any limitation fund which may be necessary for the satisfaction of claims against its owners.

2. That this Court has full and exclusive jurisdiction to determine whether or not the vessel's owner has the right to limit its liability to this claimant.

3. That any claim of res judicata based on judgment in any other Court with respect to any issue of limitation of liability reserved to this Court is waived by this claimant.

Plaintiffs objected to removal of the stay, contending to the district court that: (1) this was not a "single claim" case, but one that involved multiple claims, since there were claims on behalf of the widow and two minor children; and (2) that claimant's stipulations were inadequate since she did not concede that the value attributed by Midland to the boat and its freight was the correct and final value. These two contentions are the appellate issues presented and we address them individually.

II.

  1. The Single vs. Multiple Claim Issue

    In support of its argument that multiple claims are presented, Midland cites a number of cases holding that a single injury

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    or death can generate multiple claims. 1 We have no quarrel with this proposition, but it is not the issue before this court. In the district court, Judge Johnstone resolved this issue by looking to the policy behind the Limitation Act. He concluded that at least part of the policy was to provide one federal forum for the resolution of competing claims. Judge Johnstone then concluded that a mother and children bringing a claim for damages growing out of the death of the husband and father does not present a situation involving competing claims. Although we do not disagree with this conclusion, we prefer to resolve the issue by way of a somewhat different analysis.

    We first note that the wrongful death action here involves a widow and two minor children. We limit our analysis to the specific factual situation. Whether the analysis might differ, for example, if the claim was made by a widow and two emancipated children, we leave for another day.

    We next note that we did not have, as a part of this record, the complaint filed in state court as a result of the lifting of the restraining order by the district court. Therefore, the precise contours of the claim were not ascertainable as of the time of oral argument. 2...

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