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Irons v. Matthews

June 15, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, Senior District Judge


Plaintiff Ernest Irons brings this action against his former employer, Defendant Howard Matthews*fn1, alleging that Defendant is liable for injuries Plaintiff sustained in an boating accident that occurred while Plaintiff was working on Defendant's crabbing vessel. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant was negligent under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, et. seq. Plaintiff also alleges the unseaworthiness of a ship owned and operated by Defendant, and asks for maintenance and cure pursuant to general maritime law. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333.

Defendant moves for summary judgment based on a release executed by Plaintiff. Additionally, Plaintiff brings a cross-motion for summary judgment, requesting that the Court void the release and hold that the Defendant is liable for all Plaintiff's claims. For the reasons set forth below, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied, and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied in part and granted in part.


In 2002, Plaintiff, then 22, worked on a crabbing vessel owned and operated by the Defendant. On May 24, 2002, Defendant, who was operating the boat, and Plaintiff, who was crewing it, were involved in a boating accident in Cape May Harbor, New Jersey. Defendant, distracted by looking at porpoises, hit a channel marker and was thrown from the boat.*fn2 (White Aff. ¶ 4; Matthews Dep. 50:14-51:5) The vessel was equipped with a lanyard cut-off switch, which "kills" the engine if the lanyard is pulled and is supposed to be worn by the boat's operator. (Tallman Aff. ¶ 7.) However, Defendant was not wearing the lanyard.*fn3

(Matthews Dep. 47:1-49:1.) After Defendant was ejected from the boat, the boat continued moving and eventually hit the marshes, resulting in a second impact. Plaintiff sustained serious injuries in the accident, including injuries to his vertebrae and scapula. In the weeks that followed, Plaintiff received medical care from various doctors and underwent surgery. (White Aff. ¶ 8-15.)

Plaintiff and his family had a longstanding, close relationship with Defendant. Plaintiff considered Defendant to be "a member of the family." (Irons Aff. ¶ 3.) Moreover, Plaintiff's father also worked for Defendant. (Pl. Stmt. of Undisputed Facts ¶ 3.) Additionally, prior to the accident, Plaintiff's family had rented a house from Defendant, which they, including Plaintiff, moved into after the accident. (Matthews Dep. 69:12-23.)

After the accident, Defendant received the full amount of the $250,000 protection and indemnity insurance policy he had on his vessel, and he used $224,401.03 of this insurance money to pay for Plaintiff's medical bills. (White Aff. ¶ 16-20.)

Defendant also made $1,750 in "intermittent payments" to Plaintiff, from May 31, 2002 to August 1, 2002, although the purpose and source of this payment is unclear. (White Aff. ¶ 21.) Plaintiff returned to work for Defendant that fall. (Irons Dep. 82:3-11.)

Aware that there was only $23,000 remaining in the insurance payout*fn4, Defendant asked Plaintiff to sign a document, releasing him from all further claims (the "Release"). (Matthews Dep. 62:13-16.) Defendant asserts that Plaintiff was aware that he had $23,000 of insurance money remaining, but Plaintiff claims that he believed that the insurance money had been depleted and any further settlement would be paid by Defendant out-of-pocket. (Irons Dep. 90:7-92:18.) Plaintiff asserts that Defendant told him that "lawyers weren't necessary" and that "he would take care of [him]." (Irons Dep. 89:5-10). Although it is clear that Plaintiff did not consult an attorney or seek legal advice,*fn5 it is not apparent to what extent the terms of the settlement were discussed prior to the signing of the Release. However, a day or two prior to executing the agreement, Plaintiff understood that he was going to sign a release in exchange for $15,000 and a truck. (Irons Dep. 102:12-23.) The settlement in total was supposed to be for $23,000. It appears that Defendant decided on this amount, not by an estimation of Plaintiff's future medical costs, but because it was the amount remaining from Defendant's insurance. (Matthews Dep. 73:21-74:1.)

On October 31, 2002, Plaintiff and Defendant, both unrepresented by counsel, executed the Release in the office of an attorney who represented a family member of Defendant in an unrelated matter. Defendant provided the Release, a pre-printed form in black and red type with space provided to write-in the particulars of the settlement, that he had previously obtained to deal with prior, unrelated situations. (Matthews Dep. 62:4-12.) Plaintiff claims he filled out and signed the form as instructed by Defendant. (Irons Dep. 111:21-112:2.) Plaintiff also claims he may have been under the influence of drugs when he signed the release.*fn6

The Release stated that in exchange for $23,000 dollars, which Plaintiff had already received, Plaintiff released Defendant and his wife from all claims and rights arising out of his back injury. (Def. Summ. J. Br. Ex. K.) It then reiterated, in various ways, that this Release settled all claims, present or future, for damages, maintenance, cure, and wages. At the time he executed the Release, Plaintiff did not know what maintenance and cure was. (Irons Dep. 115:17-116:4.) Three witnesses from the attorney's office signed the Release, as did a notary public.

However, the Release did not comport with the reality of Defendant's payments to Plaintiff. First, contrary to what was stated in the Release, Plaintiff had not yet received a $23,000 payment when the Release was executed. Second, without Plaintiff's knowledge, Defendant agreed with Plaintiff's parents to pay Plaintiff's settlement directly to his parents, rather than to Plaintiff.*fn7 (Irons Dep. 92:22-96:22) Defendant subsequently paid three checks to Plaintiff's mother, totaling $15,224. Third, Defendant may not have paid Plaintiff the full value of the $23,000 settlement. It is undisputed that Defendant paid Plaintiff's mother $15,224 and purchased a truck for Plaintiff, costing $7,500. The total value of these payments is $22,724, which is less than the promised $23,000 settlement payment.*fn8

Plaintiff alleges that at some point after the Release had been executed, he had a second surgery for issues arising out of the injuries he received during the accident. Plaintiff was surprised that Defendant refused to pay for his bills, because he thought the he would continue to take care of him ...

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