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Rainbow Line Inc. v. Tequila

decided: June 18, 1973.


Kaufman, Chief Judge, and Anderson and Oakes, Circuit Judges.

Author: Anderson

ROBERT P. ANDERSON, Circuit Judge:

There are three principal issues in this case: what choice of law prevails, whether a breach of charter party gave rise to a maritime lien, and the priority of the lien.

The facts are these. Pursuant to a standard New York Produce Exchange time charter, the vessel LINGLEE, owned by the Simpson Steamship & Navigation Co. (Simpson), was delivered to her charterers, Rainbow Line, Inc. [Rainbow], on December 12, 1969 for a term of six months with options to renew for two additional periods of six months. Rainbow exercised the first of these options. On October 28, 1970, Simpson prematurely withdrew the vessel from service and Rainbow sought damages for this breach of the charter party. On May 13, 1971, an arbitration panel awarded Rainbow $17,849.12

In the meantime, on March 8, 1971, Simpson, a subsidiary of Windjammer International [Windjammer], sold the LINGLEE to another Windjammer subsidiary, Tequila, Ltd., which renamed the vessel the TEQUILA. As part of this transaction, Empire Commercial Corp. [Empire] loaned Tequila, Ltd., $180,000 on its note secured by a first preferred mortgage on the vessel. Within two months, however, Tequila defaulted on its payments.

In May of 1971 the TEQUILA was arrested in New York upon the complaint of Lewis Nadle who claimed $60,000 for salvage and towage services furnished the vessel when she ran aground off Honduras in November, 1970. Rainbow and Empire and nine other claimants also arrested the ship for claims totaling $392,312.40. The vessel was sold by the United States Marshal for $162,000.

Most of these claims have been settled out of the proceeds of the sale, and the fund now totals $84,271.81, with just three claims left pending against it- Rainbow's for $17,217.65;*fn1 Nadle's for $60,000; and Empire's for $230,814.47.

This appeal, authorized by 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3), is taken from the order of the district court, which, on the basis of United States admiralty law, held that Rainbow had a maritime lien for the breach of the charter party. If this ruling is correct, Rainbow, under the Ship Mortgage Act of 1920, 46 U.S.C. § 953,*fn2 would have priority status over Empire and could receive immediate payment of its claim,*fn3 because Rainbow's lien attached before Empire recorded its mortgage; however, if Rainbow has no preferred maritime lien, there will be nothing left in the fund for its claim after Empire is paid.

The first issue is what law to apply. Empire contends that British law, which grants no lien for the breach of a charter party, must govern as it was the law of the flag at the time of the breach. Rainbow argues that the court below was correct in applying United States law because it was so intended by the parties to the charter. But maritime liens arise separately and independently from the agreement of the parties, and rights of third persons cannot be affected by the intent of the parties to the contract,*fn4 The Bird of Paradise, 72 U.S. 545, 555, 18 L. Ed. 662 (1866); see also, Piedmont & Georges Creek Coal Co. v. Seaboard Fisheries Co., 254 U.S. 1, 10, 41 S. Ct. 1, 65 L. Ed. 97 (1920); G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty, § 9-1, at 481-2 (1957).

This does not mean, however, that there is automatic recourse to the law of the flag. In Lauritzen v. Larsen, 345 U.S. 571, 582, 73 S. Ct. 921, 928, 97 L. Ed. 1254 (1953), the Supreme Court stated that maritime law resolves conflicts by "ascertaining and valuing points of contact between the transaction and the states or governments whose competing laws are involved." The Court went on in that Jones Act case to put specific importance on three factors: the law of the flag, the allegiance or domicile of the injured seaman, and the allegiance of the shipowner; it gave relatively little weight to the place of the tort, the place of the signing of the employment contract, the accessibility of a foreign forum, or the law of the forum, see Tjonaman v. A/S Glittre, 340 F.2d 290, 291 (2 Cir.) cert. denied 381 U.S. 925, 85 S. Ct. 1561, 14 L. Ed. 2d 684 (1965). In Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 382, 79 S. Ct. 468, 3 L. Ed. 2d 368 (1959), the Court held that the broad principles set forth in Lauritzen were to govern choice of law problems in all maritime cases but "due regard must be had for the differing interests advanced by varied aspects of maritime law." Thus, "the controlling considerations are the interacting interests of the United States and of foreign countries, . . ." Romero, supra, 358 U.S. at 382-383, 79 S. Ct. at 485-486.

In applying the principles of Lauritzen to this case, it must be borne in mind that the present case was decided on its own facts and the legal problems contained in them, and that no one test can be stated for all maritime lien cases,*fn5 cf. Reese Depecage: A Common Phenomenon in the Choice of Law, 73 Colum.L.Rev. 58 (1973). The present case involves a number of different considerations or potential points of contact between different nations; but because the court below proceeded on a different theory, it made no findings of fact on a number of the issues involved. The record, however, is sufficiently clear on the key points to make a remand unnecessary.

First, there is the registration of the vessel or the law of the flag. At the time of the breach, this was Bahamian or British; at the time of the mortgage and thereafter, it was Liberian. The owners were Simpson, Bahamian, and Tequila, Ltd., Liberian, but both of these corporations were subsidiaries of Windjammer, a United States corporation, having its principal place of business in Florida. Furthermore, Windjammer's president, Michael Burke, who also appears to have a controlling interest in Windjammer, is a Florida resident. As to the parties on this appeal, Rainbow is a Liberian corporation which conducts all its business through an agent in Puerto Rico; and Empire is a New York corporation with its principal place of business in that state.

Therefore, without attempting to determine which factors should be given the most weight, it can be seen that virtually all of the points of contact in the transactions giving rise to this dispute are with the United States. Some are Liberian, but no one contends that Liberian law should apply. The only British contacts are the registration and nominal ownership of the vessel at the time the charter party was breached. These British interests, however, are overshadowed by the fact that the real owners of the vessel, namely Windjammer and Burke, were American, and it is well settled that the courts will look through the facade of foreign registration and incorporation to the American ownership behind it, Hellenic Lines Ltd. v. Rhoditis, 398 U.S. 306, 90 S. Ct. 1731, 26 L. Ed. 2d 252 (1970); Bartholomew v. Universe Tankships, Inc., 263 F.2d 437, 442 (2 Cir.) cert. denied, 359 U.S. 1000, 79 S. Ct. 1138, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1030 (1959).

An additional reason for applying American law in this case is that the only party who does not want to use that law is Empire, an American corporation whose claim is based upon a note that stipulates the use of American law. Thus, if there were any doubt on the choice of law point, it could certainly be resolved against a United States citizen who ...

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