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Terracciano v. McAlinden Construction Co.


decided: September 28, 1973.


Appeal from judgment of United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, Lloyd F. MacMahon, judge (sitting by designation), for the sum of $5,000 in favor of plaintiff-appellant.

Friendly and Hays, Circuit Judges, and Jameson,*fn* District Judge.

Author: Jameson

JAMESON, District Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment for $5,000 entered in favor of plaintiff-appellant, Joseph Terracciano, against his employer, defendant-appellee, McAlinden Construction Co., on a special jury verdict*fn1 in a personal injury action brought by appellant under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. § 688)*fn2 and general maritime law.

Background Facts

In August, 1967 McAlinden Construction Co. entered into a contract with the Sears Oil Company to deepen a portion of the Hudson River adjacent to the Sears dock at Glenmont, New York. The job was accomplished by drilling holes in the river bed into which explosives were placed and later detonated.

The drilling and loading were done from a 30-foot drilling barge on which were mounted two air-driven drills. The barge was anchored by two cables attached to anchors placed on the river bed and two cables attached to points on the river bank. It was moved by means of a winch with four drums, one for each anchor cable.

At each barge location two rows of five holes each were drilled, with the holes spaced at intervals of about five to six feet. Each hole was loaded immediately after drilling with a charge consisting mainly of Petrogel, an explosive, interlaced with prima-cord, a rope-like detonation-initiating device. Each charge was topped with a canister of Farmex, which is 50% nitroglycerin ("straight") dynamite. The holes were loaded so that the Farmex canisters would extend a few inches above the river bed.

At the end of each day the charges set during the day were detonated by electrically firing two charges. The remaining charges were set off by shock waves from these detonations, a method known as propagation.

This plan of operation was designed by Joseph McAlinden, president of appellee corporation. Merritt McAlinden, another officer of the corporation, represented the company at the job site and was there for the blasting period.

On September 18, 1967 the barge crew consisted of Donald Mathieu, barge-foreman and charge-loader for one of the drills, Alexander Elcavage, the other loader, and two drillers, Gary Purweiler and Joseph Terracciano, the plaintiff-appellant. A number of holes had already been drilled and loaded. Terracciano was having difficulty with his drill on account of loose rock falling back into the hole he was drilling. Mathieu came to his aid, assumed charge of the drill, and attempted to clear the hole by raising and lowering the drill within the hole.

At this time a 660-foot tanker, the Volvula, was approaching the barge area on its way down stream. When the stern of the Volvula was abreast of the barge there was an explosion beneath the barge. All of the charges were detonated, and the barge occupants were thrown into the air.

Appellant, who was 23 years of age at the time of the accident, sustained permanent crippling foot injuries as a result of the explosion. An attending physician*fn3 testified that appellant will always have some difficulty in walking and will never be able to stand for long periods, do any heavy lifting, or return to his former occupation as a manual laborer. He can be rehabilitated to do sedentary work, but rehabilitation presents some difficulty due to appellant's below average I.Q. and inability to read at a level higher than normal for a second grade student. He has not been gainfully employed since the accident. At the time of the accident his work expectancy was about 37 years.

Proceedings in District Court

It was appellant's theory of the case that a wake from the passing Volvula moved the drill barge, causing the end of a drill to wander on the river bottom and strike a loaded hole, detonating the charges contained therein. Appellant contended that (1) the barge was unseaworthy, and (2) appellee was negligent in using a makeshift anchor and sensitive explosives capable of being detonated by shock, and in permitting drilling in close proximity to a loaded hole.

Appellee contended that appellant was not a seaman (to preclude application of the Jones Act) and denied that it was negligent or that the barge was unseaworthy. It contended further that if it were found liable, its liability should be limited under 46 U.S.C. § 183 et seq.*fn4 to the value of the drilling barge after the explosion on the ground that the cause of the explosion was without the privity or knowledge of appellee's managing officers.*fn5

As noted supra (note 1), the jury in its special verdict found that appellant was a seaman and that appellee was negligent, but that appellee's officers were without privity or knowledge of the negligent act causing the accident. The jury also found that the barge was seaworthy. Judgment was entered for $5,000, the amount fixed by the jury as the value of the barge after the explosion. Appellant's post- trial motions for a new trial and for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict were denied.*fn6 This appeal followed.

Appellant contends that (1) there was no substantial evidence to support the jury's finding that the explosion was caused by appellee's negligence without the privity or knowledge of its managing officers; (2) the amount of damages was grossly inadequate; and (3) the court erred in refusing to charge that alleged violations of safety statutes and regulations constituted negligence.

Limitation of Liability

The crucial question on this appeal is whether appellee sustained its burden of showing that its managing officers were without privity or knowledge of the negligence which caused the explosion. This issue received little attention by either counsel in their closing arguments. The primary thrust of the argument on negligence was whether appellee had taken reasonable precautions in its method of operation*fn7 and whether appellant had sustained his burden of showing the explosion was caused by appellee's negligence.

At the close of the argument, the court asked appellee's counsel whether his "limitation of liability point [was] out."*fn8 At the hearing on post- trial motions, the court suggested that he was not sure the jury understood the issue with respect to negligence without privity or knowledge, stating that "although the Court clearly stressed the point in its charge to the Jury and gave them a guide for criteria, neither Counsel argued the point to the Jury". The court pointed out further that at the request of the jury the charge on this subject was repeated, and the jury returned its verdict some 35 minutes later.

Appellee recognizes that the "particular negligence that the jury found is, of course, not known." Calling attention to the "two modes where the negligence might lay, i.e., the plan and the performance," appellee refers to the fact that "Defendant's counsel earlier suggested to the Court below on the post-trial motions, some seven possibilities of negligence in the performance by the workmen that day." The primary thrust of appellee's argument on appeal, however, is that the accident could not have occurred had Mathieu, the foreman, "kept the 'down' pressure on the inshore drill", and his negligence was not that of a managing agent or superintendent.

Mathieu testified that he had down pressure on the drill and it was in "Down position, against the bottom of the hole" and a wandering drill could not have caused the explosion. He admitted, however, that he had been working the drill up and down just prior to the explosion and testified that "if the conditions were too rough we would have to [stop drilling]" and that "we weren't loading or permitting anything for the other drill at the time [the ship passed]."

Accepting Mathieu's testimony, Joseph McAlinden testified that a wandering drill steel or sand pipe could not have caused the explosion.*fn9 Appellee refers in its brief to the "courtroom tension created when the two McAlinden witnesses sought anxiously to avoid stating openly what had become obvious: that if the foreman Mathieu, present in the courtroom, had kept the 'down' pressure on the inshore drill, the accident could not have happened.*fn10 Merritt McAlinden, the officer of appellee in charge of the job, however, testified that "It was a premature blast and no one knows how or why." Both McAlindens admitted on cross-examination that immediately after the accident they had expressed opinions to the effect that the movement of the barge from the wake of the passing ship had caused the drill steel to wander into an adjacent hole and cause a premature blast.*fn11

It is well settled that limitation of liability is an affirmative defense and that the defendant has the burden of proving that its officers and managing agents lack privity or knowledge.*fn12 In re Marine Sulphur Queen, 460 F.2d 89, 101 (2 Cir. 1972).*fn13 To sustain its burden of proof a defendant must show how the loss occurred, together with its lack of privity to or knowledge of the asserted cause. If it cannot show how the loss occurred, a defendant must exhaust all the possibilities, and show that as to each it was without the requisite privity or knowledge. The S.S. Hewitt, 284 F. 911, 912 (S.D. N.Y. 1922).*fn14

Appellee did not produce any evidence as to the cause of the accident, aside from the inference it now draws from Mathieu's testimony. Appellee's witnesses testified that the explosion was not caused by a wandering drill and that the method appellee followed was safe and reasonable. The only affirmative evidence presented by appellee as to the cause of the accident was Merritt McAlinden's testimony that "It was a premature blast and no one knows how or why."

It cannot be said, as appellee apparently now contends, that it was shown by Mathieu's testimony that the explosion was caused by his negligence in failing to keep the down pressure on the drill. No witness testified that in his opinion this was the cause of the explosion; nor did counsel so contend in his closing argument. On the contrary, appellee's witnesses in their testimony and counsel in his argument accepted Mathieu's testimony that the drill was down when the explosion occurred. No other witness contradicted this testimony.

As stated above, Merritt McAlinden, who heard Mathieu's testimony and followed him on the stand, testified that "no one knows how or why" the premature blast occurred. Appellee made no effort to explore and exhaust all possibilities as to the cause of the accident and show lack of privity and knowledge as to each, although at a post-trial hearing, counsel suggested seven possible acts of negligence in performance of the work. Its representative on the job site having claimed ignorance of the cause of the explosion, appellee failed to sustain its burden of proving lack of privity to or knowledge of the cause of the accident.

The court did not charge the jury that the defendant had the burden of proof on the issue of limitation of liability. He expressed some doubt as to whether the jury fully understood this issue, but concluded that "there was evidence from which the jury could have found either way on that point."

The evidence with respect to both issues -- negligence and privity and knowledge -- leaves much to be desired. Counsel for both parties complain that they were unduly rushed in the trial of the case. Counsel for appellant states that the entire trial, from the selection of the jury through closing arguments, took six hours of trial time and that counsel were repeatedly admonished that they were "taking too long". Counsel for appellee states that appellee began its case at 11:35 A.M.*fn15 and was required to call three fact witnesses, one expert witness, and read from depositions before the noon recess. He contends that "The rushed summations of counsel could not fully cover all the evidence and points involved in the case."

Appellant contends further that appellee was not entitled to a jury trial on the admiralty defense of limitation of liability. It is true that proceedings for limitation of liability are ordinarily tried to the court without a jury.*fn16 Here, however, the parties expressly stipulated for a trial by a jury of six persons. The form of special verdict submitted to the jury contained eight questions, including two questions relating to the issue of limitation of liability. No exceptions were taken to the form of verdict and no question was raised in the district court with respect to the trial of the limitation issue by a jury.*fn17

Because there is no way to determine from the findings below what negligent conduct the jury found to have caused the appellant's injuries, it is impossible to remand solely for a determination of whether the appellee met its burden of proof in establishing that the negligent conduct occurred without the privity or knowledge of its officers or managing agents. We therefore remand the entire case for a new trial.*fn18

Reversed and remanded.


Reversed and remanded.

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