The opinion of the court was delivered by: FISHER
Petitioner, Frank Cirigliano, is the registered owner of a 1981, 25-foot Sea Ray Cruiser power boat with twin 228-horsepower inboard-outboard engines. On September 5, 1988, while en route from the Manasquan River to Johnson's Boat Basin in Ocean County, New Jersey, the vessel was involved in an accident with another vessel. It is alleged that the Sea Ray Cruiser ran over two water skiers afloat in the Metedeconk River alongside two water skiers afloat in the Metedeconk River alongside the second vessel and that, as a result, Adam Musgrave, a minor child, suffered serious and extensive injuries.
On December 22, 1988, petitioner filed a petition in admiralty, pursuant to 46 U.S.C. §§ 183-189, for exoneration from or limitation of liability for any claims arising out of the incident. On December 29, 1988, this court issued an order restraining the prosecution of any other action to recover damages sustained as a result of the accident, as well as an order for a monition, directing that all claims regarding the boating accident be filed in this court. Claimant Laurie Musgrave filed an answer to the petition on her own behalf and as guardian ad litem for Adam Musgrave on February 6, 1989.
The matter is presently before the court on the claimants' motion for summary judgment. Claimants assert that at the time the boating accident occurred, petitioner was operating his own vessel and, thus, is not entitled to the limitation of liability afforded by 46 U.S.C. § 183 to owners of vessels for acts which occur without the owner's "privity or knowledge." Petitioner does not dispute that he was operating his boat at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, he opposes the motion for summary judgment on the ground that a denial of a petition for limitation of liability requires a showing, first, of negligence, and then, of "privity or knowledge" on the part of the owner, both of which involve factual inquiries, thus making summary judgment inappropriate at this time. Moreover, petitioner contends that the affidavit submitted by the claimants is not only insufficient to show either negligence or "privity of knowledge" on his part, as a matter of law, but is improper and prejudicial because it contains irrelevant medical information regarding Adam Musgrave's injuries and incorporates a police report which contains hearsay statements inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 803(6) and (8).
Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Brown v. Hilton, 492 F. Supp. 771, 774 (D.N.J. 1980). The burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists rests initially on the moving party. Goodman v. Mead Johnson & Co., 534 F.2d 566, 573 (3d Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1038, 50 L. Ed. 2d 748, 97 S. Ct. 732 (1977). This "burden . . . may be discharged by 'showing . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.'" Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). Nonetheless, in deciding a motion for summary judgment, the facts and inferences therefrom are construed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Pollock v. American Telephone & Telegraph Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir. 1986).
The Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 183, permits the owner of a vessel to petition for exoneration from or limitation of liability for loss or damage which results from a collision, provided that the loss occurred without the owner's "privity or knowledge."
In pertinent part, § 183 provides:
The liability of the owner of any vessel . . . for any embezzlement, loss, or destruction by any person of any property, goods, or merchandise shipped or put on board of such vessel, or for any loss, damage, or injury by collision, or for any act, matter, or thing, loss, damage or forfeiture, done, occasioned or incurred, without the privity or knowledge of such owner or owners, shall not . . . exceed the amount or value of the interest of such owner in such vessel and her freight then pending.
46 U.S.C. § 183 (emphasis added). At issue here is whether a denial of an owner's petition for exoneration from or limitation of liability, under the above statute, can be based solely on a finding that the owner was the operator of the vessel at the time the collision occurred. The court concludes that it cannot.
It is well settled that the determination of whether a shipowner is entitled to a limitation of liability requires the court to engage in a two-step inquiry. The initial inquiry requires the court to determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident. Next, the court must determine whether the owner of the vessel had "knowledge or privity" of these acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness. M/V Sunshine, II v. Beavin, 808 F.2d 762, 764 (11th Cir. 1987); Hercules Carriers, Inc. v. Claimant State of Florida, 768 F.2d 1558, 1563-64 (11th Cir. 1985); Bankers Trust Co. v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 761 F.2d 943, 948 (3d Cir. 1985); Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976). The initial burden of proving negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness lies on the claimant; however, once this burden is satisfied, the burden of proof shifts to the shipowner to show an absence of "privity or knowledge." Coryell v. Phipps, 317 U.S. 406, 409, 87 L. Ed. 363, 63 S. Ct. 291 (1943); M/V Sunshine, II, supra; Hercules Carriers, Inc., 768 F.2d at 1564.
Where individual owners are concerned, "privity or knowledge" has been defined to mean "some personal participation of the owner in the fault or negligence which caused or contributed to the loss or injury." Coryell v. Phipps, 317 U.S. at 411; Gibboney v. Wright, 517 F.2d 1054, 1057-58 (5th Cir. 1975). The court recognizes that there is some authority for the proposition that when an owner operates his own pleasure craft, he is charged with "privity or knowledge" of his own negligent acts or the negligent acts of those under his effective command and, consequently, is not entitled to limit his liability. See Tittle v. Aldacosta, 544 F.2d at 756-57; Fecht v. Makowski, 406 F.2d 721, 722-23 (5th Cir. 1969); In re Follett's Petition, 172 F. Supp. 304, 305 (S.D. Tex. 1958). Nevertheless, the court is reluctant, at this stage of the litigation, to award summary judgment to claimants and deny petitioner the opportunity, available to him under 46 U.S.C. § 183, to seek exoneration or limit his liability on so little a factual showing.
In the case at bar, petitioner seeks either exoneration or a limitation of liability. Both require a factual inquiry into the issue of which negligent acts caused the accident. In this regard, claimants offer only conclusory allegations of petitioner's negligence; no facts have been presented which indisputably establish petitioner's negligence as the cause of the collision. Similarly, it is also well settled that "privity or knowledge" turn on the facts of the individual case. Coryell v. Phipps, 317 U.S. at 411; Gibboney v. Wright, 517 F.2d at 1057.
While the court is aware that an owner who is in control of his own pleasure craft has a heavy burden of showing that he lacked "privity or knowledge" as to negligence in operation, the court will not conclude otherwise prior to a factual development of the issue of fault causing or contributing to the loss. See M/V Sunshine II v. Beavin, 808 F.2d at 765.
For the reasons set forth above, the court concludes that a summary disposition based solely on the undisputed fact that petitioner was on board and operating his own vessel at the time of the accident, without time for discovery and a more complete development of the circumstances surrounding the accident, would be inappropriate. Accordingly, ...