Williams v. Dann Marine Towing, LC, C.A. No. K18C-05-039 JJC

CourtSuperior Court of Delaware
Writing for the CourtClark, J.
Parties Bruce P. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff, v. DANN MARINE TOWING, LC and M/V Palm Coast, LC, Defendants.
Docket NumberC.A. No. K18C-05-039 JJC
Decision Date06 August 2020

237 A.3d 820

Bruce P. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
DANN MARINE TOWING, LC and M/V Palm Coast, LC, Defendants.

C.A. No. K18C-05-039 JJC

Superior Court of Delaware, In and for Kent County.

Submitted: May 22, 2020
Decided: August 6, 2020


237 A.3d 822

Keith E. Donovan, Esquire, Morris James LLP, Dover, Delaware, & Lance A. Jackson, Montagna, Klein & Camden, LLP, Norfolk, VA, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

Michael B. McCauley, Esquire, Palmer, Biezup & Henderson LLP, & Jules V. Massee, Esquire, Hamilton, Miller & Birthisel, LLP, Tampa, Florida, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Defendants.

Clark, J.

Plaintiff Bruce P. Williams sues Defendants Dann Marine Towing, LC and M/V Palm Coast, LC (collectively "Dann Marine") for injuries he suffered while helping to dock a jet fuel barge at Port Mahon, Delaware. Mr. Williams worked as an engineer on the tugboat M/V Palm Coast that towed the barge. He suffered a back injury as he threw mooring lines from the barge to a mooring structure next to the dock.

Dann Marine owned the tug but did not own the barge that it towed from Baltimore, Maryland to Port Mahon, Delaware.

237 A.3d 823

General maritime law controls the principal substantive issues raised in this motion. That law creates an implied warranty to provide seamen with a seaworthy vessel. This warranty of seaworthiness permits a claim for its breach against either (1) the vessel's owner or (2) an entity that exhibits control over the vessel to a sufficient degree that a court should treat it as the vessel's situational owner.

Here, Dann Marine moves for partial summary judgment regarding Mr. Williams's claims that both the tug and the barge were unseaworthy. On this record, there are genuine issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment as to both vessels. Furthermore, whether the alleged breaches caused Mr. Williams's injury will also be an issue of fact. Accordingly, the Court must deny Dann Marine's motion for partial summary judgment.

I. FACTS OF RECORD AND BACKGROUND

The recited facts of record are those viewed in the light most favorable to Mr. Williams, as the non-movant. They also reflect all reasonable inferences drawn in his favor.

In 2007, Dann Marine contracted with Vane Brothers by charter agreement to tow Vane Brothers’ barges. The charter agreement, applicable during this 2015 incident, sets forth the parties’ responsibilities and expectations. Namely, it provides:

[Dann Marine] shall at all times maintain each [tug] in a seaworthy condition, in a good state of repair, in efficient operating condition, and in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. [Dann Marine] shall maintain adequate ship's spares aboard. [Vane Brothers] shall be responsible for maintaining all barges to be towed pursuant to this charter in a seaworthy condition.1

It also provides:

[Dann Marine] shall man the [tugs] and provide and pay for all [tug] provisions, wages, medical expenses, and all transportation expenses of all crewmembers, and the insurance for the [tugs] ... [Vane Brothers] shall be responsible for maintaining and crewing its own barges and equipment. [Vane Brother]’s employees and crew shall not be deemed to be employees or crew of [Dann Marine]. [Dann Marine]’s employees and crew shall not be deemed to be employees or crew of [Vane Brothers].2

For approximately nine years, Mr. Williams served as an engineer and crew member on Dann Marine's tugboat, the M/V Palm Coast. As the tug's engineer, Mr. Williams maintained its propulsion unit and helped dock the tug and any barge that it towed.

Its crew included Captain Potter, a mate, an engineer, and a deckhand. Dann Marine also employed Gerald Furlough as a second captain—a relief captain—for the tug. Together, the two captains mastered the boat for the four years preceding Mr. Williams's injury.3 The two captains took separate shifts, with Captain Potter's rotations lasting about twice as long as Relief Captain Furlough's.4 As a result, Captain Potter captained the tug approximately two-thirds of the time, while Relief Captain Furlough captained it one-third of the time.5

237 A.3d 824

During the four years that the two captains alternated time, the tug regularly called at Port Mahon in Delaware.6 It docked there from one to two times a month, to two to three times a week at others.7 No Vane Brothers personnel ever manned the barge during transit or docking, however. Rather, during all such periods, the M/V Palm Coast's crew performed all needed functions on the barge. This practice directly contradicted the provision in the charter agreement that required Vann Brothers to crew its barges during times of operation.

On these trips, the M/V Palm Coast frequently towed Vane Brothers’ barges from Baltimore to Port Mahon. On the day of the incident, it towed and then docked Vane Brothers’ DS-204 barge. When doing so, it followed one of two routine docking procedures that varied based upon who captained the tug.8

The docking procedures at Port Mahon required taking mooring lines from the starboard side of the barge and placing two double lines around a dolphin, or fixed mooring structure, that was near the dock.9 Once the crew placed the two lines around the dolphin, the captain pivoted the tug and barge around the dolphin in order to moor the barge to the fuel dock.10 At that point, the tug's crew would secure the barge next to the dock.11

The docking procedure differed, however, based upon who captained the tug.12 When Captain Potter docked the barge, he positioned the starboard side of the barge immediately alongside the first dolphin.13 In contrast, Relief Captain Furlough regularly positioned the starboard side of the barge several feet from the first dolphin.14 In addition, Relief Captain Furlough routinely asked a single crew member to prepare the lines but did not do so until after the forward portion of the barge had passed the dolphin.15 After placing the barge in position, he expected that single crew member to then throw the lines. Mr. Williams's expert opines that these practices deviated from industry standard.

Because of how far Relief Captain Furlough typically positioned the barge from the dolphin, Mr. Williams needed to throw the lines a farther distance.16 Fuel barges, such as DS-204, had tanks that made it impossible for Mr. Williams to stand on the edge of the barge's deck. Rather, he had to climb on top of the fuel tank (the dome) and stand a few feet from the barge's edge when throwing the mooring lines.17 Given these circumstances, Relief Captain Furlough's docking practices forced Mr. Williams to throw the lines significantly farther than when Captain Potter docked the barge. In other words, Relief Captain Furlough's docking practice increased the throwing distance greater than necessary because he placed the barge too far from the first dolphin.18

On May 20, 2015, Mr. Williams seriously injured his back while throwing mooring lines during one of these dockings. On that

237 A.3d 825

day, Relief Captain Furlough positioned the barge's starboard side approximately ten feet from the dolphin where the barge was to be moored. Mr. Williams then boarded the barge and stood on its dome in order to throw the lines. As was Relief Captain Furlough's practice, he instructed Mr. Williams to throw the lines onto the dolphin by himself. In addition, one of the two lines on the barge was extremely heavy and stiff because it had sat in the salt and sun. Mr. Williams's expert opines that the state of the line constituted a defective condition. Given the unreasonably heavy line and the unnecessary distance from the barge's dome to the dolphin, Mr. Williams suffered injury when throwing the heavy line such a long distance by himself.

In this suit, Mr. Williams raises three causes of action: (1) negligence under the Jones Act, (2) a claim for maintenance and cure, and (3) a claim that the tug and the barge breached the warranty of seaworthiness. Under the Jones Act, a seaman may sue in negligence for injuries suffered during the course of his employment.19 Furthermore, a seaman possesses a right to maintenance and cure (medical and financial compensation) following an injury or illness during his employment.20 Those causes of action are not at issue. On summary judgment, Dann Marine challenges only the third cause of action: the one based upon the warranty of seaworthiness.

Under general maritime law, the warranty of seaworthiness implies a separate and independent duty requiring an owner or operator to maintain a seaworthy vessel.21 Mr. Williams's unseaworthiness claim alleges, in part, the following:

[a]t all times relevant herein, the defendant Dann Marine ...as the owner or owner pro hac vice of the tug PALM COAST and as the owner pro hac vice of the barge, and/or the defendant MN Palm Coast, LC, as the owner of the tug PALM COAST, had a duty to provide the plaintiff with a seaworthy vessel that was reasonably fit for the purpose for which it was to be used. ... Notwithstanding the foregoing duty, the defendant Dann Marine ... breached its duty
237 A.3d 826
...

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