Williams v. Coleman Co.

Decision Date24 February 2014
Docket NumberNO. 4:11-cv-02384-RBP,4:11-cv-02384-RBP
PartiesBRANDON WILLIAMS, a minor suing by and through his legal custodian, guardian and next friend, BLAINE BREASEALE, Plaintiff, v. THE COLEMAN COMPANY, INC., d/b/a SEVYLOR, POLYAMA PLASTIC INDUSTRIAL LTD and ZHONGSHAN PLEASURE TIME PLASTIC INDUSTRIAL LTD, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
MEMORANDUM OPINION

This cause comes on to be considered on the plaintiff's Motion for a Determination of Applicable Law, and plaintiff's Motion to Strike Defenses, both filed on December 7, 2013. The court has concluded that it would be premature for it to rule on these motions prior to discovery, but the court will collect some archival information to be further considered after discovery. The court will reference some cases which will set the tone for the issues of the case and cite a number of cases which the parties argue have significance, along with some commentary by the court. The parties will be given an opportunity to saddle their horses and lead an "archivalry" charge to rebut and elucidate. The parties should suggest whether there are any significant legal issues not related to the capacity of the plaintiff to be negligent. The parties have agreed that this is an admiralty case and that maritime law is generally involved. The court will not cite anycases which support this agreement. The main underlying issue is how the appropriate maritime law should be determined and applied with regard to juveniles.

The parties agree that there is no controlling case or statute which presently provides how the capacity of the plaintiff to be guilty of negligence or contributory negligence should be determined. The plaintiff argues that the analysis should be framed, at least partially, by Alabama law. He cites as follows:

Under Alabama law, contributory negligence of child under 7 does not bar recovery. Birmingham Elec. Co. v Kirkland, 118 So. 640, 613 (1928); White Swan Laundry Co. v Wehrhan, 79 So. 479, 481 (1918). Under Alabama law, negligence of parent/custodian does not bar or reduce personal injury claim of the infant. Nunn v Whitworth, 545 So. 2d 766, 767 (1989); Bentley v Lawson, 191 So.2d 372, 376 (1966); Birmingham Elec. Co. v Kirkland, 118 So. 640, 643 (1928). Under Alabama law, test for assumption of the risk by an infant is at least as demanding as for contributory negligence. Superskate Inc v Nolen by Miller, 641 So. 2d 231 (Ala. 1994).

The parties appear to agree that admiralty does not recognize assumption of the risk as a defense and applies comparative negligence. Socony-Vacuum Oil Co v Smith, 305 U.S. 424, 429 (1939); Pope & Talbot v Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-09 (1953); The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1, 14 (1890). They further agree that general admiralty law applies. See East River S.S. Co. v Transamerica Delaval, 476 U.S. 858, 864 (1986) ("With admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law. Absent a relevant statute, the general maritime law, as developed by the judiciary applies.") (citations omitted). And, that comparative negligence always applies over contributory negligence. See Pope & Talbot v Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-09 (1953) ("The harsh rule of the common law under which contributory negligence wholly barred an injured person from recovery is completely incompatible with modern admiralty policy and practice. Exercising its traditional discretion, admiralty has developed and now follows its own fairer and more flexible rule which allows such consideration of contributory negligence in mitigation of damages as justice requires."); The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1, 14 (1890).

Plaintiff

The plaintiff further argues that:

The standard of care for infants/juveniles is a peculiarly local interest. See Huron Portland Cement Co. v. City of Detroit, Mich., 362 U.S. 440 (1960). Where there is no admiralty rule and one is not really needed, the court may apply state law. See Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman's Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955); Kossick v United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961). State law, however, cannot interfere with the elements of the substantive cause of action itself. E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transam. Delvael, Inc., 476 U.S. 858 (1986).

There is a one-way, pro-plaintiff "ratchet," allowing state law to apply when it is favorable to the plaintiff. See Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961); Sun Ship, Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715 (1980); Yamaha Motor Corp,,U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199 (1996). "The general maritime law" is simply the body of judge-made and non-statutory admiralty law. See Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970).

Defendants

The defendants argue that:

In admiralty actions, federal admiralty law governs. E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transam. Delvael, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 864 (1986).

Maritime law must not (1) be contrary to the "essential purpose" of an act of Congress; "material[ly] prejudice[ial]" to a "characteristic feature[]" of general maritime law; or disruptive to the "proper harmony and uniformity" of general maritime law or (2) deprive a party of a "substantial right" provided by admiralty law. See S. Pac. Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 216 (1917), superseded by statute,1 Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, ch.509, 44 Stat. 1424 (1927) (codified as amended at, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq.); Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239 (1942); Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406 (1953).

Comparative fault is a characteristic feature of admiralty law and a substantial right. See United States v. Reliable Transfer Co, Inc., 421 U.S. 397 (1975); Pope & Talbot, 346 U.S. at 408-09 (1953); Lewis v. Timco, Inc., 716 F.2d 1425, 1428 (5th Cir. 1983).

This case is not of peculiarly local concern and Huron is inapplicable. Huron Portland Cement v. Detroit, 362 U.S. 440 (1960).

An admiralty rule does exist for the case here (comparative negligence). See Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman's Insurance Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955).

The court has repeatedly emphasized the need for uniformity. See Am. Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443 (1994); Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207 (1986); Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961). Yamaha does not provide that state interests must always trump competing admiralty principles. See In re Amtrak Sunset Ltd. Train Crash in Bayou Canot, Ala. On Sept. 22, 1993, 121 F.3d 1415, 1424-25 (11th. Cir. 1997). Courts have declined to apply a parental immunity doctrine and interspousal immunity. See Szollosy v. Hyatt Com., 396 F. Sup. 2d 147 (D. Conn. 2005); Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615 (4th Cir. 1981).2 Assumption of the risk is not a defense in admiralty. See Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. v. Smith, 305 U.S. 424 (1939); Nat'l Marine Serv., Inc. v. Petroleum Serv. Corp., 736 F.2d 272 (5th Cir. 1984).

Plaintiff's guardian's negligence may be asserted as related to foreseeability. See Williams v. BIC Corp., 771 So.2d 441 (Ala. 2000).

Court

The court further notes that:

Striking an affirmative defense is proper only if the defense is "insufficient as a matter of law." Microsoft Corp. v. Jesse's Computers & Repair, Inc., 211 F.R.D. 681, 683 (M.D. Fla. 2002); Fed. R. Civ. P. 12.

When a case triggers the court's admiralty jurisdiction, it applies substantive maritime law; however, state law may sometimes still be applicable. See Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 534 (1995); Misener Marine Const., Inc. v. Norfolk Dredging Co., 594 F.3d 832, 837-38 (11th Cir. 2010); Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996); Misener Marine Const., Inc. v. Norfolk Dredging Co., 594 F.3d 832, 839 n. 16 (11th Cir. 2010).

The assumption of the risk defense is not a bar to recovery in admiralty. See Edward Leasing Corp. v. Uhlig & Associates, Inc., 785 F.2d 877, 886 (11th Cir. 1986).

Comparative negligence applies to maritime torts. See Pope & Talbot v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-09 (1953).

Alabama law bars the negligence of infants under seven and also bars the imputing to them the negligence of their guardians. See Jones v. Strickland, 77 So. 562, 565 (Ala. 1917); Proctor v. United States, 443 F. Supp. 133, 135 (N.D. Ala. 1977); Nunn v. Whitworth By & Through Whitworth, 545 So. 2d 766, 767 (Ala. 1989).

This court does not adopt a state rule as such. The Jensen test (list of three factors) have not been applied consistently. Compare Am. Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443, 447 (1994)(specifically citing the Jensen factors) with Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199 (1996) (not citing the Jensen factors); see also Misener Marine Const., Inc. v. Norfolk Dredging Co., 594 F.3d 832, 839 n. 16 (11th Cir. 2010) ("The application of this rule has not been completely clear and consistent."); In re Antill Pipeline Const. Co., Inc., 866 F. Supp. 2d 563, 568 (E.D. La. 2011). As stated, this court does not apply state law here.

Courts may apply state laws to specific legal questions where admiralty law is silent, as long as it does not frustrate the uniformity of admiralty law. Coastal Fuels Mktg., Inc. v. Florida Exp. Shipping Co., Inc., 207 F.3d 1247, 1251 (11th Cir. 2000). Uniformity is a fundamental feature of admiralty law. See Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 401 (1970); In re Amtrak Sunset Ltd. Train Crash in Bayou Canot, Ala. on Sept. 22, 1993, 121 F.3d 1421, 1425 (11th Cir. 1997); State Trading Corp. of India, Ltd. v. Assuranceforeningen Skuld, 921 F.2d 409, 414 (2d Cir. 1990).

Generally, there is nothing local about maritime torts or the substantive state law regulating them. See Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 631 (1959) (holding state's invitee/licensee distinction inapposite in admiralty); Calhoun, 216 F.3d at 351 (finding state law barring comparative negligence as defense in products liability action inapplicable); Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615, 621 (4th Cir. 1981) (refusing to incorporate interspousal immunity in tort...

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