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In re Vessel Club Med

March 27, 2000

IN RE: VESSEL CLUB MED


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosen, United States Magistrate Judge

FOR PUBLICATION

CAMDEN VICINAGE

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Presently before the court is the motion *fn1 of Claimant/Respondent Celeste Smith, for relief from the order of this court staying the claimant's state court action pursuant to the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §181, et seq. ("the Act"). After having considered the submissions of the parties, the claimant's motion for relief from the federal stay of her state action shall be granted.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This action arises from the alleged injury of Claimant Smith on May 2, 1998 upon the vessel Club Med, owned and operated by Petitioner Michael Snyder. Claimant Smith alleges that, while boarding the vessel, berthed in the City of Atlantic City, she stepped into an open engine hatch and injured her left ankle. (See Affidavit of Celeste Smith, attached as Exhibit A to the Affidavit of Michael J. Mackler, Esquire, submitted in support of Claimant's Motion for Relief from Stay) (hereinafter "Mackler Aff., Ex. A"). Petitioner Michael Snyder denies all of the claimant's allegations. Specifically, the petitioner contests that the claimant's injury "was due to any fault on his part" and asserts "that the alleged accident occurred without his privity or knowledge." (Petitioner's Brief at 1; Complaint for Exoneration From or Limitation of Liability, ¶ 7 (hereinafter "Complaint")).

On approximately August 11, 1999, the claimant filed an action against the petitioner based on her alleged injury in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Atlantic County, Docket Number ATL-L-2776-99. (Complaint, ¶¶ 6, 13). As is the petitioner's right under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §181, et seq., on September 30, 1999, the petitioner filed a complaint in this court claiming exoneration from and limitation of liability for any alleged injuries related to those of the claimant's and seeking a restraining order and issuance of a monition from this court. In addition, the petitioner filed an affidavit valuing the vessel at $80,000 and submitted a bond in that amount, in accordance with Fed. R. Civ. P. Supplemental Rule F(1). On October 1, 1999, this court issued the monition pursuant to 46 U.S.C. §185 and Fed. R. Civ. P. Supp. R. F(3), enjoining "the commencement or continuation of prosecution of any and all suits, actions or proceedings" against the petitioner arising from the claimant's alleged incident. The monition further required any interested parties to file a claim in the federal court on or before November 15, 1999. On November 10, 1999, Claimant Celeste Smith submitted a claim in accordance with the monition. No other claimant has submitted a claim in this court related to the Smith incident. The within motion for relief from the stay of the state court proceedings ensued.

Claimant Smith seeks relief from the state court suit injunction contending that this case merits the court's abstention under the "savings to suitors" clause of 28 U.S.C. §1333, which preserves common law rights in certain maritime actions. The claimant has offered the following stipulations designed to protect the petitioner's rights following trial in the state court:

1. Claimant, Celeste Smith, hereby concedes that petitioner, Michael Snyder, then owner of the vessel CLUB MED, is entitled to and has the right to litigate all issues relating to limitation of liability pursuant to the provisions of 46 U.S.C. Sections 182-189 in this Court, but claimant specifically reserves the right to deny and contest in this Court all assertions and allegations made by the petitioner in the Complaint for Limitation filed herein.

2. Claimant herein will not seek in an action pending in any state court actions, in which a jury trial has been demanded, any judgment or ruling on the issue of petitioner's right to limitation of liability; and hereby consents to waive any claim of res judicata relevant to the issue of limitation of liability based on any judgment that may be rendered in said state court action.

3. Claimant herein, while not stipulating to or agreeing to $80,000 as the combined value of petitioner's interest in the vessel CLUB MED, and her pending freight, hereby stipulate (sic) that in the event there is a judgment or recovery in any state court action in excess of $80,000, whether against petitioner or any other liable parties who may cross claim or claim over against petitioner, in no event will claimants (sic) herein seek to enforce said excess judgment or recovery insofar as same may expose petitioner to liability in excess of $80,000 pending the adjudication of the Complaint of Limitation of Liability in this Court. (Stipulation for Single Claimant, Mackler Aff., Ex. E).

The petitioner opposes the motion on three primary grounds: (1) that the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction over all issues arising from the maritime claim; (2) that allowing litigation to proceed in state court will result in duplicative litigation and thus waste judicial resources; and (3) that the stipulations offered by the claimant are inadequate as a matter of law. The petitioner objects that the stipulations are inadequate in three respects: (1) that they are insufficient as to their res judicata effect; (2) that they ignore the petitioner's right to exoneration; and (3) that they do not concede the limitation fund. (Petitioner Brief, passim). Responding to these alleged deficiencies, the claimant has agreed to amend her stipulations with respect to the res judicata and exoneration issues. (Claimant Reply, p. 3). Claimant does not agree, however, to waive her right to contest the limitation issue in this court, if necessary, following trial on the merits in state court. (Claimant Reply, p. 6-8).

For the following reasons, the court shall not require the claimant to amend the stipulation either with respect to the res judicata issue or as to the value of the vessel or to the re-litigation of the petitioner's exoneration from liability.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Background of Admiralty Jurisdiction and State ...


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