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TURNER v. NIAGARA FRONTIER TRANSP. AUTH.

October 19, 1990

EMMETT L. TURNER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NIAGARA FRONTIER TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY AND CITY OF BUFFALO, DEFENDANTS.



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

FACTS

On June 3, 1986, at about 9:00 p.m., plaintiff Emmett L. Turner was involved in an accident on the vessel "Samuel Wilkeson" wherein he tripped over a rope on the deck and fell through an open hatch of the engine compartment, sustaining serious permanent injuries resulting in quadriplegia. At the time of the accident, Mr. Turner was employed by the defendant Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority ("NFTA"). The vessel was owned by the City of Buffalo ("City"), but was being chartered by the NFTA under a signed agreement. See Item 35, Ex. A. Plaintiff has sued both the NFTA and the City of Buffalo, alleging negligence and unseaworthiness of the vessel. Defendant NFTA has moved to file a second amended answer. Defendant City has moved for summary judgment on all counts. Both motions are opposed by plaintiff.

DISCUSSION

I. MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Defendant City moves for summary judgment. In order to prevail on its motion, the City must show "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that [it] is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A material fact is one "that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. . . ." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. The court "must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party defending against the motion." Eastway Constr. Corp. v. City of New York, 762 F.2d 243, 249 (2d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 918, 108 S.Ct. 269, 98 L.Ed.2d 226 (1987). "Uncertainty as to the true state of any material fact defeats the motion." United States v. One Tintoretto Painting, 691 F.2d 603, 606 (2d Cir. 1982) (citation omitted).

The City has advanced three arguments to support its motion. Its first argument is that a seaman's remedy for negligence under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. App. § 688, can only be brought against his "employer."*fn1 See Baker v. Raymond Int'l, Inc., 656 F.2d 173, 177 (5th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 983, 102 S.Ct. 2256, 72 L.Ed.2d 861 (1982). There is no dispute that the NFTA was plaintiff's sole employer. See Item 43, at 1. Thus, the City of Buffalo cannot be sued for negligence under the Jones Act. This does not, however, prevent plaintiff from suing under general maritime law for the City's alleged negligence. See Baker, 656 F.2d at 177 ("recovery may be had in admiralty for negligence resulting in the injury of a person who is not an employee.").

Defendant's second argument is more critical. Under the general maritime law, an action for unseaworthiness may lie against the owner of the vessel. See id., at 181-84. Defendant argues that, although the City was the legal owner of the "Samuel Wilkeson," for the purpose of determining liability for unseaworthiness, it is not liable because, at the time of the accident, it had surrendered complete command, control and possession of the vessel to the NFTA. See Rodriguez v. McAllister Brothers, Inc., 736 F.2d 813, 815 (1st Cir. 1984).

In the present status of this case, defendant's argument cannot prevail. Even assuming arguendo that the City had relinquished complete command, control, and possession of the vessel by chartering it to the NFTA at the time of the accident, under the law of this circuit, defendant would still be liable for injuries caused by defects in the vessel that existed prior to commencement of the charter. In re Marine Sulphur Queen, 460 F.2d 89, 100 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. Marine Sulphur Transp. Corp., 409 U.S. 982, 93 S.Ct. 318, 34 L.Ed.2d 246 (1972); Uni-Petrol Gesellschaft Fur Mineraloel Produkte M.B.H. v. M/T Lotus Maru, 615 F. Supp. 78, 81 (S.D.N.Y. 1985). See also Cannella v. Lykes Bros. S.S. Co., 174 F.2d 794, 795 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 338 U.S. 859, 70 S.Ct. 102, 94 L.Ed. 526 (1949). This principle has been upheld by other circuits as well. See Kerr-McGee Corp. v. Law, 479 F.2d 61, 63 (4th Cir. 1973); Ramos v. Beauregard, Inc., 423 F.2d 916, 917-18 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 865, 91 S.Ct. 101, 27 L.Ed.2d 104 (1970); Haskins v. Point Towing Co., 421 F.2d 532, 536 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 834, 91 S.Ct. 68, 27 L.Ed.2d 66 (1970). Indeed, one court has even held, after extensive analysis, that an owner is liable for a vessel's unseaworthiness "without regard to whether [the] owner or bareboat charterer is responsible for the vessel's condition." Baker, 656 F.2d at 184. Plaintiff alleges that several conditions of unseaworthiness which may have contributed to his injury existed prior to the City's chartering of the boat to the NFTA. See Item 43, at 3-5 (lack of railings, guards, or coaming surrounding the engine hatch). These allegations raise a genuine issue of fact whether the vessel was unseaworthy at the time it was in the City's possession, and whether these conditions were a proximate cause of plaintiff's injury.

A second aspect of this argument is more troubling. Defendant asserts that NFTA, not the City, was for all intents and purposes the "owner" of the "Samuel Wilkeson" at the time of the accident, thus relieving the City of responsibility. The City relies on Reed v. The Yaka, 373 U.S. 410, 412, 83 S.Ct. 1349, 1351, 10 L.Ed.2d 448 (1963), which held that "[i]t has long been recognized in the law of admiralty that for many, if not most, purposes the bareboat charterer is to be treated as the owner, generally called the owner pro hac vice." This case merely begs the underlying question, however, whether NFTA was a bareboat charterer at the time of the accident. And this question hinges on whether the legal owner, i.e., the City, had "completely and exclusively relinquish[ed] `possession, command, and navigation' [of the vessel] to the demisee." Guzman v. Pichirilo, 369 U.S. 698, 699, 82 S.Ct. 1095, 1096, 8 L.Ed.2d 205 (1962) (quoting United States v. Shea, 152 U.S. 178, 14 S.Ct. 519, 38 L.Ed. 403 (1894)). Moreover, where a defendant owner is seeking to escape liability on the ground that it has demised the boat to a charterer, "the owner has the burden of showing such a charter. This burden is heavy, for courts are reluctant to find a demise when the dealings between the parties are consistent with any lesser relationship." Guzman, 369 U.S. at 700, 82 S.Ct. at 1097. See also Fitzgerald v. A.L. Burbank & Co., 451 F.2d 670, 676 (2d Cir. 1971).

Defendant has not carried this burden. It has argued that it

  leased the Wilkeson to the NFTA outright,
  reserving only the right to use it on occasion
  with reasonable advance notice. Under the terms
  of the lease, Defendant NFTA was responsible for
  hiring and directing the master and crew,
  providing fuel and supplies and making all
  necessary repairs to the vessel.

Item 36, at 5. Plaintiff has countered that the City's continued inspections, its right under the charter to use the vessel at any time, and the fact that the City exercised that right between August 12, 1983 and October 11, 1983 raise a genuine issue of fact whether the City had control. The court finds these facts, especially the fact the City continued to inspect the vessel and order that repairs be made to it right up to and immediately after the accident (see Item 43, Ex. J), sufficient to deny defendant's motion.

Defendant's third argument is that, by law, the ship was not unseaworthy. In Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, 362 U.S. 539, 549, 80 S.Ct. 926, 932, 4 L.Ed.2d 941 (1960), the Supreme Court, after reviewing the history of the law on unseaworthiness, concluded that

  the decisions of this Court have undeviatingly
  reflected an understanding that the owner's duty
  to furnish a seaworthy ship

  is absolute and completely independent of his
  duty ...

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