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PADRO v. VESSEL CHARTERS

February 28, 1990

GUMERSINDO PADRO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
VESSEL CHARTERS, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leisure, District Judge:

ORDER & OPINION

Defendant Vessel Charters, Inc. ("VCI"), owner of the SS SANTA ADELA, claims that it is not a proper party to this lawsuit brought by its employee, seaman Gumersindo Padro. VCI supports its claim by citing the Suits in Admiralty Act ("SIAA" or the "Act")*fn1 which, under certain circumstances, holds the United States exclusively liable for admiralty claims arising under the SIAA. 46 U.S.C.App. § 745. VCI time-chartered the vessel SS SANTA ADELA to the United States, through the Military Sealift Command, an agency of the Department of the Navy. Because VCI believes the SIAA applies here, it seeks dismissal of the lawsuit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Alternatively, VCI requests that summary judgment be granted. After careful review of the SIAA and case law interpreting it, the Court denies VCI's motion for dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. As a number of factual issues remain to be resolved, VCI's motion for summary judgment is also denied.

BACKGROUND

The facts not in dispute will be briefly summarized. In 1984, VCI entered into a time-charter agreement with the Department of the Navy. Pursuant to the agreement, VCI was to provide the vessel SS SANTA ADELA for the Navy's use, with VCI retaining responsibility for manning the ship with officers and crew, as well as navigation, care and custody of the ship. See Defendant's Exhibit 1, Article 22(a) (the "time-charter agreement"). The resulting relationship provided that the Navy designate the cargo to be carried and the ports to be visited, while VCI had day-today operational control of the SS SANTA ADELA.

On April 3, 1988, with the time-charter agreement operative, plaintiff sustained a severely broken left leg while assisting at docking the ship in Yakohoma, Japan. His injury allegedly resulted when one of the mooring lines snapped and wrapped around his leg. As a result of the injury, plaintiff has been unable to return to work as a merchant seaman.

On March 17, 1989, plaintiff brought this lawsuit alleging that his injury was caused by VCI's negligence in maintaining its mooring lines, or, alternatively, by the unseaworthiness of the SS SANTA ADELA. In its answer, VCI alleged, as its first affirmative defense, that plaintiff's exclusive remedy lies against the United States pursuant to the SIAA. This motion is grounded on that defense and requests that VCI be dismissed as defendant because the Court lacks jurisdiction over it.

DISCUSSION

The Court will first consider the SIAA and case law interpreting it before discussing its application here.

A. Suits In Admiralty Act

VCI claims that the United States is the exclusive defendant in this lawsuit, pursuant to the SIAA. Sections 741 through 745 of the Act provide the statutory frame for VCI's claim, and the sections must be read together to understand their use.

Section 741 provides in relevant part:

  No Vessel owned by the United States . . . or in
  the possession of the United States . . . or
  operated by or for the United States . . . shall
  hereafter, in view of the provision herein made
  for a libel in personam [Section 742], be subject
  to arrest or seizure by judicial process in the
  United States or its possessions. . . .
  The important passage for this lawsuit is "Vessel[s] . . . operated by or for the United States," which the Court finds includes a vessel such as the SS SANTA ADELA. A reasonable interpretation of the plain language of the statute requires its application to a privately owned ship operated for the benefit of the United States. See J. W. Petersen Coal & Oil Co. v. United States, 323 F. Supp. 1198, 1205-06 (N.D.Ill. 1970) (articulates the meaning of "operated by or for the United States," and concludes that a time-charter is encompassed by the "operated for" language); see also A.H. Bull S.S. Co. v. United States, 105 F. Supp. 474, 479 (S.D.N.Y. 1952), aff'd, 208 F.2d 888 (2d Cir. 1953).

The Court must also consider section 742 to determine whether the SS SANTA ADELA is within the jurisdiction of the SIAA. Section 742 provides that, "[i]n cases where . . . if a private person or property were involved, a proceeding in admiralty could be maintained, any appropriate nonjury proceeding in personam may be brought against the United States." Certainly, absent the time-charter agreement, plaintiff could have maintained an admiralty proceeding against VCI, as the owner of the SS SANTA ADELA, to recover damages for his injury. See Cosmopolitan Shipping Co. v. McAllister, 337 U.S. 783, 791, 69 S.Ct. 1317, 1321-22, 93 L.Ed. 1692 (1949). Thus, at this stage of the analysis, plaintiff's claim ...


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