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Morrow v. Marinemax

August 17, 2010

FLOYD MORROW AND MARYANN MORROW, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARINEMAX, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

Plaintiffs Floyd and Maryann Morrow seek damages under the general maritime law against Mr. Morrow's employer MarineMax and other defendants for personal injuries that Mr. Morrow sustained on a boat off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment.*fn1 In it, the MarineMax Defendants contend that Plaintiffs' claims for negligence and loss of services and consortium are barred as a matter of law by the New Jersey Workmen's Compensation Act and its so-called "exclusive remedy provision," N.J. Stat. Ann. § 34:15-8. For the reasons stated herein, the Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be denied.*fn2

I.

On August 23, 2006, Plaintiff Floyd Morrow was preparing to watch the annual Atlantic City Air Show aboard a 55-foot motor yacht off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Defendant MarineMax, a dealer and distributor of such vessels, had offered Plaintiff,*fn3 an employee in the company's service department, the opportunity to spend the workday on the yacht as part of an employee appreciation event. (Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot., Statement of Uncontested Facts ¶ 7.) The parties have stipulated that Plaintiff was acting within the scope of his employment while he was on the yacht. Id. at ¶¶ 10-11. Defendant MarineMax held the yacht in its inventory, and was therefore listed as the owner of the vessel. (Compl. First Count ¶ 7.)

Plaintiff's fellow employee had been swimming off the stern of the yacht. Upon his return, he walked through the vessel to find a place to watch the Air Show. As he made his way, he slipped and fell, falling from the yacht's flybridge area into the stern cockpit area. (Pl.'s Br. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. Ex. A ¶¶ 3-5.) He fell directly onto Plaintiff, who, as a result, fractured his cervical vertebrae, causing paralysis. (Compl. First Count ¶ 13.)

After the accident, Plaintiff filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits with the New Jersey Department of Labor. (Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot., Statement of Uncontested Facts ¶ 10.) MarineMax began making payments to Plaintiff pursuant to that claim. Id. at ¶ 12. On August 18, 2009, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court. The complaint sounds in admiralty, seeking damages under the general maritime law. Count One contends that Plaintiff was a passenger on a United States vessel who suffered injuries due to the negligence of the vessel's owner, her master and crew, and a fellow passenger. (Compl. First Count ¶ 14.) Count Two states a claim against the boat's manufacturer, Ferretti SpA, for unseaworthiness. Finally, Count Three seeks damages on behalf of Plaintiff's wife Maryann Morrow for loss of services and consortium.

In their motion for summary judgment, the MarineMax Defendants contend that Counts One and Three of Plaintiffs' complaint must be dismissed because they are barred by the New Jersey Workmen's Compensation Act. N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 34:15-1 et. seq (2010). Under this law, if an employee and employer agree to the terms of the Act, the employee may not pursue any other form of relief, such as a common law tort suit, to recover for injuries sustained in the course of employment. See id. at § 34:15-8.

This is otherwise known as the Act's "exclusive remedy provision." Stephenson v. R.A. Jones & Co., Inc., 103 N.J. 194, 196 (1986). Because Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim and has collected payments pursuant to that claim, he appears to fall squarely within this provision.

But because Plaintiffs bring their claims under the federal maritime law, rather than under state law, the Court is presented with a novel legal question in this Circuit: may the exclusive remedy provision of a state's workers' compensation law bar a plaintiff's general maritime tort claim against his employer? For the reasons described herein, the Court answers this question in the negative and will therefore deny Defendants' motion. To allow a state's exclusive remedy provision to prevent a plaintiff from bringing a cause of action available under the general maritime law would be to deprive a person of a "substantive admiralty right[]." This it may not do. See Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 410 (1953).

II.

"[S]ummary judgment is proper 'if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must construe the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Pollock v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir. 1986). Because Defendants' motion presents essentially a pure legal question, the parties do not substantially dispute the factual circumstances giving rise to Plaintiff's injury.

III.

Absent a relevant federal statute, a court exercising admiralty jurisdiction applies the general maritime law, an "amalgum of traditional common law rules, modifications of those rules, and newly created rules." East River S.S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 864 (1986). A court sitting in admiralty should apply the general maritime law in the interest of providing a uniform body of law for resolving claims that arise on the navigable waters of the United States. Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., Inc., 247 U.S. 372, 382 (1918) (quoting Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 215 (1917)). Accordingly, there are limits on the extent to which state laws can modify or affect the general maritime law. Specifically, "a state may not deprive a person of any substantive admiralty rights as defined in controlling acts of Congress or by interpretive decisions of [the Supreme] Court. Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 410 (1953).

Stated another way, a state's laws may not work "material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law or interfere[] with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations." Am. Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443, 447 (1994) (quoting Jensen, 244 U.S. at 216). This Court's task, therefore, is to consider whether the exclusive remedy provision of New Jersey's Workmen's Compensation Act runs afoul of either of ...


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