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In re Petition of McAllister Towing and Transportation Co.

December 21, 2005

IN RE: PETITION OF MCALLISTER TOWING AND TRANSPORTATION COMPANY, INC., AS OWNER OF THE TUGS IONA MCALLISTER AND JAMES MCALLISTER MCALLISTER TOWING AND TRANSPORTATION COMPANY, INC., APPELLANT NO. 04-3938
IN RE: PETITION OF MCALLISTER TOWING AND TRANSPORTATION COMPANY, INC., AS OWNER OF THE TUGS IONA MCALLISTER AND JAMES MCALLISTER OWL INTERNATIONAL INC. D/B/A/ GLOBAL ASSOCIATES, APPELLANT NO. 04-4109



Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 02-cv-00858) District Judge: Honorable Bruce W. Kauffman.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued September 26, 2005

Before: RENDELL, FUENTES and GARTH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

In this case, we consider the impact of the exclusivity provision of the Federal Employees' Compensation Act ("FECA"), 5 U.S.C. § 8116(c), on third-party contribution claims against the federal government. Pursuant to this provision of FECA, a federal employee's recovery against the United States for injuries that he sustains on the job is limited to the fixed benefits to which he is entitled under the statutory compensation scheme. While the Supreme Court has twice held that the exclusivity provision does not, by its terms, bar contribution claims against the United States by third parties who are sued by such a federal employee, we must determine whether other principles apply to bring about such a bar in the case before us. The District Court held that these contribution claims against the United States were barred because the substantive right to contribution in the maritime law is unavailable where the party against whom contribution is sought enjoys statutory immunity from liability to the injured plaintiff. We agree with the District Court and will therefore affirm.*fn1

I. Background

This case originates from a failed attempt to tow a retired United States Navy vessel, the USS GUADALCANAL, from the Navy Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Philadelphia to another Navy facility in Virginia. The Navy contracted with Owl Associates, Inc., doing business as Global Associates, Inc. ("Global"), McAllister Towing and Transportation Company, Inc. ("McAllister"), and various other private parties to assist in the tow. The USNS MOHAWK was assigned to do most of the towing. During the attempted tow, a portion of the MOHAWK's towing gear assembly broke off and struck Todd Bruemmer, a civilian seaman employee of the United States stationed aboard the USNS MOHAWK, in the side, causing injuries.

Bruemmer and his wife filed a personal injury suit against McAllister and other private parties involved in the tow in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. McAllister responded by filing a Petition for Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability in the District Court pursuant to Rule F of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Supplemental Rules on Admiralty and Maritime Claims, which stayed the state court proceedings. Bruemmer and his wife then refiled their claims against McAllister and others in the District Court. McAllister filed a third-party complaint against the United States and Global, the private contractor that arranged the tow, seeking contribution or indemnity for liability on the Bruemmers' claims. Global filed a cross-claim seeking contribution or indemnity against the United States, contending that the United States's negligence contributed to Bruemmer's injuries.

The Bruemmers did not name the United States as a defendant in either their state court or federal court complaint, presumably because the exclusivity provision of FECA immunizes the United States from tort claims by its employees. Like most workers' compensation statutes, FECA guarantees injured federal employees "the right to receive immediate, fixed benefits, regardless of fault and without need for litigation" from their employer, i.e., the federal government, in exchange for statutory immunity from personal injury claims. Lockheed Aircraft Corp. v. United States, 460 U.S. 190, 194 (1983). The relevant portion of the statute provides:

The liability of the United States or an instrumentality thereof under this subchapter or any extension thereof with respect to the injury or death of an employee is exclusive and instead of all other liability of the United States or the instrumentality to the employee, his legal representative, spouse, dependents, next of kin, and any other person otherwise entitled to recover damages from the United States or the instrumentality because of the injury or death in a direct judicial proceeding, in a civil action, or in admiralty, or by an administrative or judicial proceeding under a workmen's compensation statute or under a Federal tort liability statute. However, this subsection does not apply to a master or a member of a crew of a vessel.

5 U.S.C. § 8116(c).*fn2

The United States moved the District Court for Judgment on the Pleadings on the contribution claims, arguing that FECA's exclusivity provision, described above, prohibited claims for contribution or indemnity against the United States that are based solely on the government's status as a joint tortfeasor. The District Court agreed and granted the government's motion. Analyzing the Supreme Court's decisions in Weyerhaeuser Steamship Co. v. United States, 372 U.S. 597 (1963), and Lockheed Aircraft Corp. v. United States, 460 U.S. 190 (1983), the District Court found that this provision of FECA does not directly bar third-party contribution claims. Its inquiry did not end there, however, because it noted that the substantive law governing the underlying contribution claims may bar such claims. In re McAllister Towing & Transp. Co., No. 02-858, 2004 WL 2009330, at *4-5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 9, 2004). The District Court concluded that, although the substantive law governing McAllister and Global's contribution claims, the maritime law, recognizes a right of contribution between joint tortfeasors, that right is unavailable where the tortfeasor against whom contribution is sought enjoys statutory immunity from first-party claims. Id. at *5 (citing Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282 (1952) and Cooper Stevedoring Co. ...


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