White v. U.S.

Decision Date09 May 1995
Docket NumberNo. 94-2286,94-2286
Citation53 F.3d 43
PartiesSherri D. WHITE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Alan Patrick Owens, Norfolk, VA, for appellant. Timothy Ross Lord, Trial Atty., Admiralty Section, Civ. Div., U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, DC, for appellee. ON BRIEF: Frank W. Hunger, Asst. Atty. Gen., Helen F. Fahey, U.S. Atty., David V. Hutchinson, Asst. Director, Admiralty Section, Civ. Div., U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, DC, for appellee.

Before WILLIAMS, MICHAEL, and MOTZ, Circuit Judges.

Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge WILLIAMS wrote the opinion, in which Judge MICHAEL and Judge MOTZ joined.


WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Sherri D. White appeals the dismissal of her suit for lack of jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. White asserts that the district court was properly vested with admiralty jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1333 (1988) and the Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 46 U.S.C.App. Sec. 740 (1988) (Extension Act). Specifically, White contends that she properly pled district court jurisdiction under Sec. 1333 because the injury for which she seeks damages occurred within the navigable waters of the United States. White further contends that she perfected the jurisdiction of the district court under the Extension Act by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the captain of the USNS Henry J. Kaiser (Kaiser) prior to filing suit. The district court found that jurisdiction was proper only under the Extension Act, but because White had failed to file a claim as required by the Act, she was not entitled to bring suit. The court, therefore, dismissed White's claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Because the district court erred in declining jurisdiction under traditional admiralty law, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.


When reviewing a district court's grant of a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, we must assume the truth of the material facts as alleged in the complaint. Summit Health, Ltd. v. Pinhas, 500 U.S. 322, 325, 111 S.Ct. 1842, 1844-45, 114 L.Ed.2d 366 (1991). On March 7, 1992, the USNS Henry J. Kaiser, a public vessel of the United States, was docked alongside a pier while undergoing repairs at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, pursuant to a contract between the United States Navy and Marine Hydraulics International, Inc. (MHI). White was a security guard employed by J & S Security, a subcontractor hired by MHI to provide security for the vessel. Later that day, pursuant to her employment as a security guard, White disembarked the vessel. Upon stepping onto a small wooden platform at the end of the gangway, she lost her balance, stumbled, and ultimately collided face first with equipment stored near a building on the pier. White sustained numerous injuries including a fractured nose.

By letter dated March 15, 1993, White's attorney, Alan Owens, forwarded a FOIA request to the Captain of the Kaiser. In the letter, Owens requested "documents and records pursuant to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. Sec. 552 et seq." (J.A. 38.) Although Owens did not indicate any intention to file a claim based on White's accident, he did state:

As attorney for Sherri D. White, a Security guard, who was injured aboard the USNS HENRY KAISER on March 7, 1992 while the vessel was docked at Norfolk, Virginia. [sic] I am requesting documents and records relating to her injury sustained aboard the vessel on that date. I am advised that she fell while descending the gangway because of the defective condition of the gangway.

Id. The request was forwarded to the Office of Counsel for the Military Sealift Command, Atlantic (MSC), which responded by letter dated March 29, 1993. This letter enclosed a copy of the handwritten ship's log entry describing the incident:

0011 Offgoing J & S security guard White, Sheri[sic] slipped on the bottom step of the gangway (wooden step) in the rain. She then continued to slip across the pier and finally hit her nose against the gangway ( [illegible] which is against the shed on the pier (ie: not the ship's gangway). The cut on her nose was about 1/2 inch across the crook.

(J.A. 43.) Other than the FOIA request and the MSC response, the record reflects no other correspondence prior to the filing of the complaint.

On February 2, 1994, White filed a complaint against the United States in federal district court to which the United States filed an answer on April 6, 1994. Shortly thereafter, the United States moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Following briefing on the jurisdictional questions, the district court dismissed White's case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1). White timely appeals.


We review de novo the district court's dismissal of a complaint for failure to establish subject matter jurisdiction. Ahmed v. United States, 30 F.3d 514, 516 (4th Cir.1994).

The authority of federal courts to hear cases in admiralty stems directly from the Constitution, which extends federal judicial power "to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction." U.S. Const. art. III, Sec. 2; Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., --- U.S. ----, ----, 115 S.Ct. 1043, 1047, 130 L.Ed.2d 1024 (1995). Congress has codified this power, vesting in the federal district courts original and exclusive jurisdiction over "[a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1333(1).

With respect to torts involving vessels, admiralty jurisdiction is confined to actions that satisfy conditions both of location and connection with maritime activity. Grubart, --- U.S. at ----, 115 S.Ct. at 1048; Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 362, 110 S.Ct. 2892, 2895-96, 111 L.Ed.2d 292 (1990); David Wright Charter Serv., Inc. v. Wright, 925 F.2d 783, 784 (4th Cir.1991); Foster v. Peddicord, 826 F.2d 1370, 1374 (4th Cir.1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1027, 108 S.Ct. 753, 98 L.Ed.2d 766 (1988). Thus, as most recently articulated by the Supreme Court, to satisfy the location test, the tort must occur on navigable waters, or, if suffered on land, at least be caused by a vessel on navigable water. Grubart, --- U.S. at ----, 115 S.Ct. at 1048 (citing Sisson, 497 U.S. at 362, 110 S.Ct. at 2895). 1 Additionally, in order to meet the requisite connection test, the facts giving rise to the wrong must bear a sufficient connection to maritime activity. Id. This inquiry requires that the court first determine whether "the general features of the type of incident involved" have "a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce," and second, "whether the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity." Id. (quoting Sisson, 497 U.S. at 365, 364 n. 2, 110 S.Ct. at 2897, 2896 n. 2) (quotation marks omitted). The district court did not reach the connection test, however, because it found no jurisdiction solely on the basis of its location analysis.


The first issue we confront is whether, applying the traditional locality test for admiralty tort jurisdiction, the district court properly dismissed White's complaint because her actual injury was not sustained on navigable waters. Urging affirmance of the district court's dismissal, the Government argues that White's injury occurred on the pier because she was injured only after she stepped onto the platform placed at the end of the gangway, lost her balance, and struck her nose on equipment stored on the pier. The pier, the government argues, is an extension of the land. Thus, the tort in the instant case did not occur on navigable waters and fails the locality test. White, however, contends that the jurisdictional facts of this case are governed by the Supreme Court's decision in The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649, 55 S.Ct. 885, 79 L.Ed. 1633 (1935). 2 In support of her position, White characterizes the instant appeal as another factual permutation of the many gangway cases we have considered since Admiral Peoples, both prior to and following the enactment of the Admiralty Extension Act of 1948. We agree. 3

It is well established that traditional maritime law encompasses the gangway. The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649, 55 S.Ct. 885, 79 L.Ed. 1633; Russell v. City Ice & Fuel Co., 539 F.2d 1318, 1320 (4th Cir.1976); Florida Fuels, Inc. v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., 6 F.3d 330, 332 (5th Cir.1993), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 1400, 128 L.Ed.2d 73 (1994); Tullis v. Fidelity & Casualty Co., 397 F.2d 22 (5th Cir.1968); O'Keeffe v. Atlantic Stevedoring Co., 354 F.2d 48, 50 (5th Cir.1965). In The Admiral Peoples, the Supreme Court confronted facts substantially identical to those in the instant case. There, a disembarking passenger was injured by falling from a gangplank leading from the vessel to the dock. 295 U.S. at 650, 55 S.Ct. at 886. The level of the plank at the shore end was about six inches above the level of the dock, creating a step from which plaintiff fell, suffering serious injury. Id. at 650-51, 55 S.Ct. at 886. The only notable difference distinguishing our facts from those in The Admiral Peoples is the presence of a wooden platform to bridge the gap between the gangplank and the dock. This record reflects that upon stepping from the gangway to the wooden platform, White lost her balance and collided face first with equipment stored near a building on the pier.

Federal admiralty jurisdiction extends to the means of ingress and egress, including but not limited to the gangway of a vessel in navigable waters. Russell, 539 F.2d at 1320. As part of the means of ingress and egress, the platform upon which White stepped from the gangway to the dock falls within the navigable waters of the United...

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