Miller, Et Al v. Amer. Heavy Lift

Decision Date21 June 2000
Docket NumberNos. 99-3703,99-3705,99-3708,99-3707,99-3709,s. 99-3703
Citation231 F.3d 242
Parties(6th Cir. 2000) Creighton E. Miller, Administrator of the Estates of Juvenal J. Rezendes, Deceased (99-3703), Louie E. Hudson, Deceased (99-3705), Booker T. Pompey, Deceased (99-3707), Walter L. Bowman, Deceased (99-3708), William B. Birch, Jr. (99-3709), Plaintiff-Appellant, v. American Heavy Lift Shipping, et al., Defendants-Appellees. Argued:
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Cleveland. Nos. 90-10263; 91-10448; 91-10775; 92-10151; 92-10427--John M. Manos, District Judge. [Copyrighted Material Omitted] John C. Cardello, Donald A. Krispin, THE JAQUES ADMIRALTY LAW FIRM, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellant.

Harold W. Henderson, Richard C. Binzley, THOMPSON HINE & FLORY LLP, Cleveland, Ohio, for Defendants-Appellees.

Gene B. George, RAY, ROBINSON, CARLE & DAVIES, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellees.

Before: MERRITT, GUY, and COLE, Circuit Judges.

COLE, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which MERRITT, J., joined. GUY, J. (pp. 252-53), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.

OPINION

R. GUY COLE, JR., Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-Appellant Creighton E. Miller is the administrator of the estates of five deceased seamen. In the years 1990-1992, Miller brought five separate actions against various shipowners and operators, alleging survival and wrongful death claims under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. App. § 688, and general admiralty and maritime law. In 1997, Miller filed amended complaints in each case. The district court found that the amended complaints did not relate back to the original complaints pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)(2), and, as such, were barred by the three-year Jones Act statute of limitations. For the reasons discussed below, we REVERSE the decision of the district court and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

Miller is the administrator of the estates of Juvenal J. Rezendes, William B. Birch, Jr., Walter L. Bowman, Louie E. Hudson, and Booker T. Pompey ("the seamen"). Each of the seamen worked for many years on various ships. All the seamen were diagnosed with leukemia prior to their deaths in 1987, 1988, or 1989. In 1990, 1991, and 1992, Miller brought suit under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. App. § 688, 1 and general maritime law against Defendants-Appellees American Heavy Lift Shipping, et al. (on behalf of Rezendes), American President Lines, Ltd., et al. (on behalf of Birch), Amerada Hess Corp., et al. (on behalf of Bowman), Alcoa Steamship Company, Inc., et al. (on behalf of Hudson), and Farrell Lines, Inc. (on behalf of Pompey) (collectively, "Shippers"). See Smith v. Gulf Oil Co., 995 F.2d 638, 642 n.3 (6th Cir. 1993). In each case, Miller brought suit prior to the running of the Jones Act's three-year statute of limitations. See 46 U.S.C. §App. 688 (incorporating by reference the three-year statute of limitations contained in 45 U.S.C. § 56); Mamer v. Apex R.E. & T., 59 F.3d 780 782 n.2 (8th Cir. 1995). In the complaints, all of which were substantively identical (only the headers and named defendants differed), Miller raised both survival and wrongful death actions, based on theories including negligence and breach of duty to maintain a safe and seaworthy vessel. Miller alleged that the seamen had sustained injuries as a result of their exposure to asbestos and to hazardous substances other than asbestos while working as seamen. In particular, the relevant language of each complaint reads as follows:

10. While serving as a mariner on said vessels, Plaintiff's decedent was exposed to hazardous substances other than asbestos.

11. As a direct and proximate consequence of his exposure to hazardous substances other than asbestos, Plaintiff's decedent has sustained injuries....

Later in each complaint, Miller further stated:

16. While serving as a mariner on said vessels, Plaintiff's decedent was exposed to asbestos and hazardous substances other than asbestos.

17. As a direct and proximate consequence of Plaintiff's decedent['s] combined exposure to asbestos and hazardous substances other than asbestos, Plaintiff's decedent has sustained injuries.

In response to numerous asbestos-related personal injury actions filed by seamen in the Northern District of Ohio, the court created a special Ohio Maritime Asbestos Litigation Docket (known as "MARDOC"). See Gulf Oil Co., 995 F.2d at 639. Miller's five actions were transferred to MARDOC. As part of the MARDOC litigation, Miller produced an "Initial Data Form" ("IDF"), a summary of basic information about each claim, for each of his five claims. Miller apparently produced the IDFs within weeks or months of filing his complaints and made them available to Shippers as part of the discovery process; however, the IDFs were not filed with the court. On the Rezendes IDF, Miller stated that Rezendes suffered from colon cancer, but did not mention leukemia; under the heading labeled "Toxin," Miller inserted "Asbestos-Tobacco Smoke." On Birch's IDF, Miller identified leukemia, in addition to other illnesses, and again identified asbestos and tobacco smoke under the "Toxin" heading. Bowman's IDF did not specify any illness, but listed asbestos and tobacco smoke as toxins. Hudson's IDF identified leukemia as an illness but listed only asbestos as a toxin. Pompey's IDF identified leukemia as an illness and listed asbestos and tobacco smoke as toxins. At some point during the course of litigation -- the timing is not clear from the record before us -- Miller also produced death certificates for each of the deceased seamen which indicated that some form of leukemia was the cause, or a contributing factor to, each sailor's death.

In 1991 and 1992, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred thousands of asbestos claims, including the five cases Miller currently appeals, to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for pretrial proceedings, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1407. See In re Asbestos Prods. Liab. Litig., 771 F. Supp. 415 (J.P.M.L. 1991). In July 1993, Miller filed a "Motion to Strip and Remand" in each of the five cases on appeal. In the motions, Miller asked the court to strip his claims of all allegations relating to asbestos exposure "so as not to prejudice allegations unrelated to asbestos exposure appertaining [to] toxin exposure which resulted in affliction of the respective seamen, whether living or deceased, of leukemic disease."2 Judge Weiner granted the motion in November 1993, and issued an order transferring the seamen's cases back to the Northern District of Ohio for further resolution. In so doing, Judge Weiner found that the "form of action in these cases is now dissimilar to traditional asbestos-related, personal injury actions," and that plaintiff seamen had "abandoned any claim for recovery based upon injury resulting from asbestos exposure and . . . are hereby precluded from claiming damages resulting from injury due to exposure to asbestos products."

In March 1995, Shippers filed a consolidated motion for a more definite statement of Miller's claims, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(e), arguing that because Miller had not specifically pleaded either leukemia or benzene exposure, his complaints were insufficient to put them on notice of the benzene claims he now argued. The court granted the motion in January 1996, finding the complaints to be vague and ambiguous. The court ordered Miller to file amended complaints within sixty days addressing several issues, including Miller's theory of liability and "the specific cargo or other substances aboard each vessel alleged to have contained benzene." Although the district court dismissed the actions when Miller failed to file the amended complaints within the sixty-day time period, the court reinstated the claims in February 1997, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).

In April 1997, Miller filed amended complaints on behalf of the estates of each of the deceased seamen. In the amended complaints, Miller again alleged theories of liability under both the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § App. 688, and general admiralty and maritime law. Miller claimed that his decedents had suffered from leukemia as a result of exposure to benzene and benzene-containing products, and listed specific instances and methods of exposure on particular ships. In April 1998, Shippers filed for summary judgment, arguing that Miller's 1997 amended complaints did not relate back to his original complaints, which had been filed in 1990-1992. Shippers also argued in each case that Miller's survival action was barred by the three-year statute of limitations because his claims had accrued before decedent's deaths, and thus more than three years prior to the filing of the original claims3.

The district court granted summary judgment to Shippers in each case. In five nearly identical memorandum opinions, the court addressed only the relation-back question, finding that none of the amended complaints related back to the original filing. The court relied on Shippers' uncontested argument that different toxins and different methods of exposure cause different diseases, and found that "[e]xposure to benzene does not occur or act in the same manner as exposure to asbestos." The court found that Miller's original allegation that seamen had been exposed to "hazardous substances other than asbestos" was insufficient to put Shippers on notice of the benzene-related claims, and concluded that "[t]aken to its logical conclusion, Plaintiff's position means the Defendants are forever on notice of claims arising out of exposure to any hazardous substance." Miller filed a timely notice of appeal.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The parties disagree about the standard by which we review the district court's decision that Miller's amended complaints do not relate back to his original...

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