United States District Court, Southern District of New York
April 8, 1991
TERRY COLLINS, PLAINTIFF,
PROMARK PRODUCTS, INC., DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF, V. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Whitman Knapp, Senior District Judge.
OPINION AND ORDER
In this personal injury case, third-party defendant United
States (the "government") moves for summary judgment. For
reasons that follow, the motion is denied.
On August 29, 1986, plaintiff Terry Collins, an employee of
the government's National Park Service, was injured on Ellis
Island while using a stump grinder manufactured by defendant
Promark Products, Inc. Since the accident, plaintiff has
received workers' compensation benefits pursuant to the
Federal Employees' Compensation Act, 5 U.S.C. § 8101 et seq.
In February 1987, plaintiff commenced the main action
against defendant Promark Products, Inc., alleging various
products liability causes of action. On May 1, 1989, Promark
impleaded the government, alleging, among other things, that
it had negligently maintained the machine and failed
adequately to instruct plaintiff on how to use it. All parties
agree that the allegedly negligent acts of the government took
place on either of two areas on Ellis Island: "Island 2" or
the "Festival Lawn". Both of these areas lay submerged under
water until 1899 and 1922, respectively, when the government
filled them in to increase Ellis Island's size.
The government here contends the payment of workers'
compensation benefits to the plaintiff bars the third-party
action against it. It arrives at this conclusion by way of the
Federal Tort Claims Act, which limits the government's
liability to "those torts committed by government employees
`under circumstances where the United States, if a private
person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the
law of the place where the [tortious] act or omission
occurred.'" Akutowicz v. U.S. (2d Cir. 1988), 859 F.2d 1122,
1125 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)). The government asserts that
"the law of the place where the [tortious] act or omission
occurred" is the law of New Jersey rather than of New York.
The distinction is critical. Under New Jersey law, the
third-party action would not lie because workmen's
compensation is deemed to be the sole liability of an employer
for an employee's work-related injury. See Ramos v.
Browing-Ferris Indus. (1986), 103 N.J. 177, 510 A.2d 1152; see
also Welch v. Schneider National Bulk Carriers (D.N.J. 1987),
676 F. Supp. 571. New York, however, does not so limit an
employer's liability. See Dole v. Dow Chemical Co. (1972), 30
N Y2d 143, 331 N.Y.S.2d 382, 282 N.E.2d 288. Thus, the issue
of which law governs "Island 2" and the "Festival Lawn" is
determinative of the instant motion.
Although we have been treated to a host of historical
documents tracing the title of Ellis Island as between the
government on the one hand and each of the two states on the
other, we find dispositive an agreement entered into between
the two states in 1833 and consented to by Congress the
following year. As Congress noted, the agreement was entered
into "for the purpose of agreeing upon and settling the
jurisdiction and territorial limits of the two states." Act of
June 28, 1834, art. 1, ch. 126, 4 Stat. 708, 709.
The first article of the agreement sets as the boundary line
between the states the mid-line of the waters that separate
them. Id. The second article expressly reserves to New York
state "its present jurisdiction" over Ellis Island and provides
that New York "shall also retain exclusive jurisdiction of and
over the other islands lying in the waters above mentioned and
now under the jurisdiction of that state." Id. The third
The state of New York shall have and enjoy
exclusive jurisdiction of and over all the waters
of the bay of New York; and of and over all the
waters of Hudson river lying west of Manhattan
Island . . . subject to the following rights of
property and of jurisdiction of the state of New
Jersey, that is to say:
1. The state of New Jersey shall have the
exclusive right of property in and to the land
under water lying west of the middle of the bay of
New York, and west of the middle of that part of
the Hudson River which lies between Manhattan
Island and New Jersey.
2. The state of New Jersey shall have the
exclusive jurisdiction of and over the wharves,
docks, and improvements, made and to be made on the
shore of the said state . . .
3. The state of New Jersey shall have the
exclusive right of regulating the fisheries on
the westerly side of the middle of the said
waters, Provided, That the navigation be not
obstructed or hindered. (emphasis, except for the
word "Provided", supplied).
Thus, although the compact divides the states down the middle
of the waterways, it reserves to New York the exclusive
jurisdiction over those waterways, while at the same time
recognizing certain "rights of property and of jurisdiction"
that belong to New Jersey.
The two areas at issue here — which, like the rest of Ellis
Island, are situated on the New Jersey side (i.e. the westerly
side) of the boundary — were, at the time of the compact,
under water. Therefore, they come within the "exclusive
jurisdiction" of New York as provided by the third article.
None of the rights retained by New Jersey under the compact
suggests a different conclusion. The first speaks only of
"property" rights to land under water. We are here concerned
only with New York's "jurisdiction", which is not defeated by
the fact that New Jersey has property rights to the underwater
lands upon which the areas in question were built. The second
right — as to "jurisdiction" over improvements made on New
Jersey's shore — has no application here. Finally, the third
— the conditional right of regulating fisheries — does not
negate the compact's general grant of "jurisdiction" to New
York, especially where that right could not, as a practical
matter, be exercised on what is now dry land.
In light of the foregoing, we conclude that, for the
purposes of the Federal Tort Claims Act, New York law applies
to the question of whether or not an action may lie against
the government. We accordingly deny the government's motion.
The government's motion for summary judgment is denied.
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