On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 02-cv-02931). District Judge: Honorable Harvey Bartle, III.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Circuit Judge.
Before: RENDELL, FISHER and VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judges.
From the high seas comes a question of federal civil procedure. After suffering a series of injuries while working as a merchant seaman, Edward Arthur sued his employers, Maersk, Inc., and Dyn Marine Services of Virginia, Inc.,*fn1 for negligence under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. app. § 688. Only later did he realize that, because the companies were operating as agents of the United States Navy, the only proper defendant in the case was the United States. He sought and was granted leave to file an amended complaint naming the United States as a party, and requested that this claim "relate back" to the original complaint to avoid a statute of limitations bar. The District Court acknowledged that the prerequisites for relation back under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c) had been satisfied, but nevertheless denied the request on the ground that Arthur had unduly delayed in seeking leave to amend. We conclude that this decision was in error, and will reverse.
From May 1999 through December 2000, Arthur worked on four different ships and suffered four similar injuries. On May 17, 1999, while employed by Maersk on board the "U.S.N.S. Stalwart Tagos-1," Arthur sustained a knee injury when the ship "rolled" during a weekly lifeboat inspection. In early October 1999, while working for Maersk on the "U.S.N.S. Capable," Arthur hurt his knee once again when the ship "rolled." On May 2, 2000, while employed by Dyn Marine aboard the "U.S.N.S. Littlehales," Arthur suffered yet another knee injury when his foot became caught in a gap in the deck matting. Finally, on or about December 19, 2000, while employed by Maersk on the "U.S.N.S. Assertive," Arthur aggravated his condition by climbing ladders and performing other tasks. These injuries resulted in significant medical expenses and rendered Arthur unable to return to work.
The four ships on which Arthur worked were operated by Maersk and Dyn Marine but were owned by the United States Navy. Contracts between the companies and the United States provided that the Navy would maintain control of the ships while the companies would offer day-to-day personnel and operational support. Maersk operated the Stalwart Tagos-1, Capable, and Assertive; Dyn Marine operated the Littlehales. The relationship between the companies and the Navy was reflected by the designation "U.S.N.S.," the official abbreviation for "United States Naval Ships."*fn2
On May 16, 2002 -- more than two years after he had been injured on board the Stalwart Tagos-1, Capable, and Littlehales but less than two years after the incident on the Assertive -- Arthur commenced a civil action against Maersk and Dyn Marine in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He alleged that the companies, as the owners "and/or" operators of the vessels, had failed to maintain deck and other facilities and were liable for negligence under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. app. § 688. He also raised claims of unseaworthiness and for maintenance and cure.
The complaint was served in due course and answers were filed by September 2002. Neither the answer of Maersk nor that of Dyn Marine refers to the Navy's ownership of the vessels or the nature of the contracts under which the companies operated the ships. The only statement suggesting the government's connection to the case appears in one of Dyn Marine's affirmative defenses: "Pursuant to the Suits in Admiralty Act . . . [and] the Suits in Public Vessels Act [Arthur] does not have a right of action against [Dyn Marine]." Both of these Acts provide a remedy against the United States, to the exclusion of all others, for a seaman injured on board a ship owned by or operated on behalf of the Navy.*fn3
A status conference was scheduled for October 15, 2002. Prior to the conference, counsel for Maersk submitted a status report indicating, as a "special comment," that the "[c]ase arises under Public Vessels Act." The topic was explored in greater detail during the conference itself. Counsel for Maersk and Dyn Marine "clearly made known their views that the United States, not their clients, was the proper defendant." The District Court urged the companies to file dispositive motions as soon as possible to address the issue and avoid the costs of litigation. It also established, upon agreement of the parties, a ten-day deadline for initial disclosures under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(1).
Neither Maersk nor Dyn Marine complied with the deadline.*fn4 Dyn Marine did not produce its initial disclosures until November 4, 2002, and Maersk did not make its disclosures until December 16, 2002. There were other problems as well. Dyn Marine's disclosures did not include a copy of the operational contract between the company and the Navy. Maersk's disclosures included the contract but were initially misdirected to referring counsel, based in Mobile, Alabama. They were not delivered to Arthur's lead counsel, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, until late December 2002, after the statute of limitations for claims against the United States had expired.
Within a month, Maersk and Dyn Marine filed separate motions for summary judgment. Both were predicated on the same argument: that, because the ships were owned by and operated on behalf of the United States, Arthur's exclusive remedy for his injuries was an action against the United States. Copies of the operational contracts between the companies and the United States -- including the one with Dyn Marine that had not been previously disclosed -- were attached in support of the motions.
Soon thereafter, on February 19, 2003, Arthur filed a motion to stay proceedings on summary judgment pending further discovery pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f).*fn5 His counsel asserted in an attached declaration that the operational contracts had not been timely disclosed and that additional discovery was required to determine whether the contracts supported the claimed defense. The District Court granted the request.
Depositions of company officials confirmed that the ships were owned by the United States and operated by Maersk and Dyn Marine under the operational contracts. The depositions also revealed that the United States had received notice of the action against Maersk and Dyn Marine in July 2002, soon after the original complaint had been served.
On April 14, 2003, Arthur filed a motion for leave to amend the complaint to add the United States as a party. The motion was granted by the District Court on May 6, 2003, and an amended complaint was filed on May 13, 2003. The amended complaint substantially repeats the allegations of the original complaint, but asserts that the United States is liable under the Suits in Admiralty Act, 46 U.S.C. app. § 742, and the Public Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. app. § 781, for the negligence of its "agents," Maersk and Dyn Marine. Three days later, the District Court granted the companies' motions for summary judgment on the ground that Arthur's exclusive remedy was against the United States.*fn6
The United States, now the sole defendant, filed a motion to dismiss the complaint as barred by the two-year statute of limitations of the Suits in Admiralty Act, 46 U.S.C. app. § 745. Following briefing, the District Court granted the motion. It recognized that the new claim would be timely if the amendment was deemed to relate back to the original complaint, filed in August 2002, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c). It also recognized that all of the enumerated prerequisites for relation back had been satisfied.*fn7 Nevertheless, it held that relation back should be denied because Arthur was "unduly dilatory" in bringing his claim against the United States.
The District Court found that, as an "experienced merchant seaman," Arthur "knew or should have known" by the "U.S.N.S." designation that the ships were owned by and operated on behalf of the United States Navy and, thus, should have brought his claim against the United States originally. It also noted that Maersk and Dyn Marine had raised the agency issue during the status conference in October 2002 and in their motions for summary judgment in January 2003 but that Arthur had not filed a motion for leave to amend until April 2003. It acknowledged that the companies may have been tardy in producing their contracts with the Navy, but admonished that Arthur should not have "wait[ed] until he ha[d] absolute certainty before moving to amend."
The District Court concluded that "[a]ny mistake about the United States was clearly no longer a mistake as of the . . . status conference," and that any delay thereafter could not be justified. It stated: "[B]ecause Arthur's motion to amend came too late, we will grant the motion of the United States to dismiss his . . . claim as barred by the ...