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In re Petition of Bloomfield Steamship Co.

decided: February 26, 1970.


Kaufman and Feinberg, Circuit Judges, and Palmieri, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Palmieri

PALMIERI, District Judge:

This litigation arises from the nighttime collision of two slow-moving cargo vessels, one the American-flag vessel SS Lucile Bloomfield, owned by Bloomfield Steamship Company (Bloomfield), the other the Norwegian-flag vessel M/V Ronda, owned by A/S J. Ludwig Mowinckels Rederi (Mowinckels). The collision occurred in international waters near the pilot station off the port of Le Havre, France, on October 1, 1963. The outbound Lucile Bloomfield had just disembarked the harbor pilot and was preparting to set a course to Antwerp. The inbound Ronda was approaching the pilot vessel to take a harbor pilot aboard. After the collision the Bloomfield continued her voyage to Antwerp since her damage was slight and no assistance was required of her. The Ronda, her hull fractured on the starboard side, proceeded to Le Havre where she docked. She was so severely damaged, however, that she capsized at quay the following day with the entire loss of her cargo valued at over two million dollars. The Bloomfield sustained damages of only about $8,000, none of it to her cargo. There were no personal injuries.

The case is here after the consolidation of petitions of both vessels for exoneration from or limitation of liability, 46 U.S.C. ยงยง 181-195. Following the collision a spate of litigation took place in the courts of the United States, England and France. Much of it was concerned with a persistent but unsuccessful effort by Bloomfield to stay an action for collision damages brought by Mowinckels in England. The Ronda cargo claimants settled with Mowinckels before trial but proceeded to trial in the Bloomfield limitation proceeding. Since limitation was granted, these claimants recovered only a part of their provable damages. They are seeking to break the limitation on this appeal.

The principal issues in the case relate to the propriety of Mowinckels' English admiralty action, questions of damages between Bloomfield and Mowinckels, and whether limitation was properly granted to Bloomfield.

Even a brief account of the protracted litigation which preceded the trial makes dreary reading. It is necessary, however, in order to understand the legal relationships of the parties and their postures on this appeal.

On October 9 and 11, 1963, cargo interests and marine insurers concerned in the cargo laden on board the M/V Ronda, filed libels in the court below against the Lucile Bloomfield and her owner, and against the Ronda and her owner.

On October 25, 1963, Bloomfield filed a petition for exoneration from or limitation of liability in the United States District Court at New Orleans. This petition was dismissed by that court on March 13, 1964, on the ground that Bloomfield was in fact doing business in the State of New York and that in consequence Rule 54 of the General Admiralty Rules required the proceedings to be filed in the Southern District of New York. In re Bloomfield Steamship Co., 227 F. Supp. 615 (E.D.La.1964), aff'd sub nom. Bloomfield Steamship Company v. Haight, 363 F.2d 872 (5th Cir. 1966) (per curiam), cert. denied, 386 U.S. 913, 87 S. Ct. 864, 17 L. Ed. 2d 785 (1967).

On January 16, 1964, Mowinckels commenced an action in admiralty against Bloomfield in the High Court of Justice, London, England. Availing itself of the presence of the Lucile Bloomfield at the port of Southampton, Mowinckels brought about the seizure of the vessel by the Admiralty Marshal; upon the filing of a $425,000 bond by Bloomfield the vessel was released.

In the meantime, and on November 22, 1963, Mowinckels appeared in the action against it brought by the cargo claimants in the court below.

The service upon Mowinckels of a monition and restraining order in the limitation proceedings initiated by Bloomfield in Louisiana served as a basis for Bloomfield's unsuccessful attempt to hold Mowinckels and its attorneys in contempt for instituting suit in England allegedly in violation of the restraining order. The court held that the injunction had no extraterritorial effect. In re Bloomfield Steamship Co., supra. Bloomfield was also unsuccessful (April 24, 1964) in seeking to dismiss the action in the English High Court of Justice, London, England. The Lucile Bloomfield, [1964] Lloyd's L.Law Rep. 324, 329.

On March 30, 1964, Bloomfield instituted a limitation proceeding in the Southern District of New York posting a bond of $750,000 and a monition and restraining order were served on Mowinckels shortly thereafter. Mowinckels did not file a claim in Bloomfield's limitation proceeding in which the only claimants were the Ronda cargo interests. On the same day Bloomfield filed a libel against Mowinckels in the district court in Louisiana to recover collision damages. This proceeding was subsequently transferred to the court below.

On March 31, 1964, Mowinckels instituted a limitation proceeding in the Southern District of New York specifically excepting Bloomfield. Judge Tenney below held that Mowinckels' exclusion of Bloomfield was improper and directed a dismissal unless an amended petition were filed extending its application and the accompanying restraining order to Bloomfield. Mowinckels amended its petition. Cargo claimants also filed in the Mowinckels limitation proceedings, but all their claims were settled before trial, leaving Bloomfield as the sole claimant in that proceeding.

Bloomfield thereafter and on November 30, 1964, moved to dismiss the amended petition for failure to file within the six month statutory period and to stay the admiralty proceedings instituted by Mowinckels against it in England. Both these motions were denied by Judge Tenney. 268 F. Supp. 682 (S.D.N.Y. 1967).

The Bloomfield and Mowinckels limitation proceedings in the lower court were consolidated for trial. They were, by post-trial motion, consolidated with Bloomfield's action against the Ronda for collision damages. After trial before Judge MacMahon, the following decisions were reached and are reflected in the judgment from which an appeal is now taken:

Both vessels were navigated negligently and they were both to blame for the collision; the Lucile Bloomfield was jointly liable with the Ronda for the subsequent loss of the Ronda's cargo; Bloomfield as owner of the Lucile Bloomfield was entitled to limit its liability to cargo claimants. Since Ronda had settled with cargo interests the only two issues remaining related to Bloomfield's claims for collision damages and for indemnification of its payments to cargo claimants. Judge MacMahon held that under the admiralty rule of divided damages Bloomfield was entitled to recover $3,989.60, one-half of the amount stipulated as the collision damages suffered by the Lucile Bloomfield; lastly he held that Bloomfield could not obtain indemnification from Ronda as joint tort-feasor on its payments to cargo claimants since such a claim could be asserted only to the extent that such payments exceeded one-half cargo's total damage claim; and since there was no such excess Bloomfield was not entitled to indemnification from Ronda. 298 F. Supp. 1239 (S.D.N.Y.1969).

Various Ronda cargo interests sued both vessels in the Tribunal of Commerce in Rouen. The Le Havre Port Authority sued Mowinckels for wreck removal in the Administrative Tribunal in Rouen. Both vessels were held in contributory fault and liable to the Ronda cargo, subject to limitation, and Mowinckels was held liable to the Le Havre Port Authority for removal of the Ronda wreckage subject to limitation. Both judgments are presently on appeal. However, following the decision in New York, ...

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