The opinion of the court was delivered by: STANLEY S. BROTMAN
Presently before the court is plaintiff Nghia Van Le's motion to dismiss Five Fathoms Inc.'s ("Five Fathoms") complaint for exoneration from or limitation of liability and for relief from the April 24, 1992 stay imposed in Van Le's lawsuit against Five Fathoms. A hearing by telephone was held on June 8, 1992.
On February 22, 1991, Nghia Van Le, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts seeking damages from Five Fathoms, as owner of the F/V Susan L. Van Le alleges that in July, 1990, he suffered personal injuries as a member of the crew of the F/V Susan L. In the complaint, Van Le demanded judgment of $ 500,000.00 in Count I as a result of defendant's negligence and $ 500,000.00 in Count II as a result of the unseaworthiness of the vessel. In Count III of the complaint, Van Le also demanded $ 100,000.00 for maintenance and cure and $ 100,000.00 in punitive damages, attorney's fees and costs.
On July 12, 1991, the case was transferred to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). In its answer to the complaint filed September 4, 1991, Five Fathoms did not plead limitation of liability as a defense to Van Le's claims.
Five Fathoms also sent its first set of interrogatories to Van Le on September 4, 1991.
On April 24, 1992, Five Fathoms filed a complaint for exoneration from or limitation of liability as the owner of the F/V Susan L. In its complaint, Five Fathoms alleges that Van Le and Thanh Nguyen, both represented by the same law firm, claim that they sustained injuries on the same voyage in July, 1990 as members of the crew of the F/V Susan L. Five Fathoms contends that the F/V Susan L is worth $ 550,000.00 and the pending freight for the voyage in which the alleged injuries occurred was worth $ 16,988.76 and that its liability for any injury caused by or resulting from the voyage of the F/V Susan L in July, 1990 is limited to the sum of these amounts, $ 566,988.76. Moreover, Five Fathoms contends that its complaint is timely in that it was filed within six months of the date it became aware of Nguyen's claim, January 30, 1992, and within six months of the date it received Van Le's written $ 1,000,000.00 settlement demand, February 18, 1992.
Based on the Five Fathoms complaint, the court issued a Restraining Order on April 24, 1992 which stayed the proceedings in Van Le's lawsuit against Five Fathoms until August 24, 1992.
The court's April 24, 1992 Order also required that public notice of a motion against all persons claiming injuries caused by or resulting from the July, 1990 voyage of the F/V Susan L be given by publication in the official newspaper for Cape May County, New Jersey.
Pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 183, "the liability of the owner of a vessel . . . for any loss, damage, or injury . . . without the privity or knowledge of such owner or owners shall not . . . exceed the amount or value of the interest of such owner in the vessel, and her freight then pending." Pennzoil Producing Co. v. Offshore Express, Inc., 943 F.2d 1465, 1473-1474 (5th Cir. 1991); Complaint of Caribbean Sea Transport, Ltd., 753 F.2d 948, 949-950 (11th Cir. 1985); Complaint of Cirigliano, 708 F.Supp. 101, 103 (D.N.J. 1989). Within six months after a claimant shall have given to or filed with a vessel owner written notice of a claim, the owner may file a complaint in the district court for limitation of liability. 46 U.S.C. § 185; Fed.R.Civ.P.Supp. Rule F(1); Vatican Shrimp Co, Inc. v. Solis, 820 F.2d 674, 677 (5th Cir. 1987).
The "written notice of a claim" must inform the vessel owner of a claimant's intention to seek damages. Complaint Petition of Big Deal, Inc., 765 F.Supp. 277 (D.Md. 1991). Once a complaint for limitation of liability is filed, "all claims and proceedings against the owner with respect to the matter in question shall cease." 46 U.S.C. § 185; Complaint of Businelle Towing Corp., 539 F.Supp. 609, 610-611 (D.C.La. 1982).
The sole issue that this court must decide is whether Five Fathoms was required to file its limitation of liability complaint within six months of receiving notice of Van Le's February 22, 1991 complaint. Since courts in the Third Circuit have not addressed the precise issue presented, the court will look to courts in other circuits for guidance.
Upon presentation of a claim, vessel owners have only one six-month period in which to file a limitation of liability complaint and later claims do not trigger additional filing periods. Esta Later Charters, Inc. v. Ignacio, 875 F.2d 234, 236 (9th Cir. 1989). The limitations period begins to run "only upon its appearing that there is a reasonable possibility that the claims would exceed the value of the ship." Complaint of Morania Barge No. 190, Inc., 690 F.2d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 1982).
When doubt exists as to whether the claims will exceed the value of the ship, the vessel owner will not be excused from complying with the six-month time bar. Complaint of Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation, Inc., 704 F.Supp. 412, 414 (S.D.N.Y. 1989). The six-month period in which to bring a limitation of liability action does not begin to run where "the claimant affirmatively states on the record that his total claims amount to a figure which is substantially less than the value of the ship and no other ...