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Walker v. Walker Bros. Fisheries, LLC

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 17, 2014





HON. JOSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, United States District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on motion for summary judgment. The Court has considered the written submissions of the parties in addition to the arguments advanced at the hearing on July 29, 2014. For the reasons set forth on the record at the hearing and those set forth below, the motion for summary judgment is denied.

I. Background

Plaintiff Ronald Walker was injured when his oilskins were caught in the winch of his vessel, the Constantino L (" Vessel"), on August 6, 2009.[1] His leg was mangled beyond repair and amputated several days later. On the date of the injury, Plaintiff was captain of the Vessel.[2] Plaintiff is also a member of the company that owned the Vessel on the date of the injury, Walker Brothers Fisheries, LLC. Walker Brothers Fisheries, LLL (" Company") is a New Jersey limited liability company of which Plaintiff and his brother, John Walker, are each 50% owners.

Immediately before his injury, Plaintiff had been unsnapping rings from the seine line.[3] At the time of his injury, Plaintiff was tightening the purse line of the fishing net to raise the rings, as he had done hundreds of times before his injury.[4] (Ronald W. Walker 1/27/14 Dep., p. 35-36.) By this time, he had already turned the capstan on, which serves to tighten the purse line. (Ronald W. Walker 1/27/14 Dep., p. 29.) As Plaintiff was tightening the purse line, he " rock[ed] toward [the winch], " causing his oilskins to get caught in the winch. (Darren Walker 2/04/14 Dep., p.11.)[5] After going around several times, it caught his pant leg, resulting in his injury. Upon getting caught, he was unable to reach the hydraulic controls, although he tried to grab them. (Ronald W. Walker 1/27/14 Dep., p. 37.)[6] Ultimately, Blake Walker--the closet crewmember to the Plaintiff at the time of injury--was able to go through the pilothouse port door and turn off the control.

Plaintiff admits that it was possible for another crewmember to have operated the hydraulic controls while he took up the slack.[7] Plaintiff also admits that, as captain, he could have relocated the capstan controls prior to his injury. As owner of the company, Plaintiff also admits that he could have installed the controls in a different location. However, Plaintiff did not know of any other boats in the bunker fishery that had a cutoff switch installed on the capstan prior to his injury, and Plaintiff did not come to the conclusion that the handles were too far away until after his injury.

As the captain, Plaintiff assigned the crewmembers their duties, assigning himself to run the power block and capstan and unhook snap rings from the purse line.[8] Plaintiff was also the one who gave the order to set the fishing net. Plaintiff is also responsible for making sure that the Vessel met the United States Coast Guard requirements. As a member of Company, Plaintiff kept the books and signed checks on behalf of the company. John Walker, the only other member of the Company, did not sign any checks or agreements for the Company, except while Plaintiff was recovering from his injury. As owner of the Company, Plaintiff had an obligation to make sure the Vessel was seaworthy and was directly involved in the maintenance and upgrades of the Vessel. Accordingly, if an unsafe condition was observed on the Vessel, it would be reported to Plaintiff. He has authorized safety improvements and has authorized vendors to perform maintenance and repairs on the Vessel. Plaintiff has never made a recommendation to change, replace, modify, or perform maintenance on the Vessel and had that recommendation been denied.

After Plaintiff's injury, the capstan controls remained in the same location on the Vessel and the Vessel continued to bunker fish for the Company. However, because of his amputation, Plaintiff had a long recovery period and did not return to the boat. At some point during his recovery, the Vessel was removed from service as a purse seine boat. The Company eventually installed the capstan from the Vessel on the company's new catch vessel, the FN Morning Star. However, Plaintiff designed a safety switch and new valves so they could be more easily reached.[9][10]

II. Summary Judgment Standard

" Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Pearson v. Component Tech. Corp., 247 F.3d 471, 482 n.1 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (a). The Court will enter summary judgment in favor of a movant who shows that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and supports the showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact by " citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c)(1)(A).

An issue is " genuine" if supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A fact is " material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986).

Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 870 F.Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. " A nonmoving party may not 'rest upon mere allegations, general denials or . . . vague statements . . . .'" Trap Rock Indus., Inc. v. Local 825, Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, 982 F.2d 884, 890 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir. 1991)). Indeed,

the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, ...

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