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In re Complaint of Christopher Columbis, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 25, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF THE COMPLAINT OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBIS, LLC, (t/a BEN FRANKLIN YACHT), AS OWNER OF THE VESSEL BEN FRANKLIN YACHT, FOR EXONERATION FROM OR LIMITATION OF LIABILITY Christopher Columbus, LLC, Appellant

          Argued March 7, 2017

         On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (E.D. Pa. No. 2-14-cv-00214) District Judge: Honorable Edward G. Smith

          Daniel H. Wooster [Argued] Michael B. McCauley Palmer Biezup & Henderson LLP Counsel for Appellant

          Stanley B. Gruber [Argued] Freedman & Lorry, P.C., Michael T. van der Veen Law Offices of Michael T. van der Veen Counsel for Appellee Michael Bocchino

          William J. Fox Counsel for Appellees James McHugh, Evan Medwid and Alexander Morella

          Before: HARDIMAN, KRAUSE, Circuit Judges, and STENGEL, Chief District Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          STENGEL, Chief District Judge.

         Christopher Columbus, LLC appeals the District Court's dismissal of its limitation action, brought pursuant to the Limitation of Vessel Owner's Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30511. Christopher Columbus filed this action after Appellee Michael Bocchino filed a negligence lawsuit against it in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Both of these actions arise out of a drunken brawl which erupted among passengers who were enjoying a cruise on the Delaware River onboard the vessel Ben Franklin Yacht. Following a hearing on the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction in the limitation action, the District Court found that maritime jurisdiction was lacking and dismissed the limitation action. For the reasons that follow, we find there is maritime jurisdiction over the dispute, and we will therefore vacate the District Court's dismissal of the limitation action.

         I Background

         Christopher Columbus owns and operates the passenger vessel "Ben Franklin Yacht, " which provides cruise services on the Delaware River.[1] The Ben Franklin Yacht, which is over eighty feet long and has three passenger decks, departs from and docks at Pier 24, located at 401 North Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pier 24 is located just north of the Ben Franklin Bridge and is adjacent to the main shipping channel of the Delaware River.

         Bocchino was a patron on a cruise on the Ben Franklin Yacht on May 3, 2013. Bocchino was apparently "assaulted on the vessel and/or in the parking lot near the dock where the Ben Franklin Yacht was moored by 'unknown patrons of the cruise and/or agents, servant[s], workmen and/or employees'" of Christopher Columbus. App. 47a. Bocchino filed a complaint against the Ben Franklin Yacht and others in the Court of Common Pleas for Philadelphia County, alleging claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, assault, and punitive damages. Christopher Columbus then filed its Complaint for Exoneration From or Limitation of Liability in federal court ("the limitation action"). Bocchino and three additional passengers on the May 3, 2013 cruise asserted claims in the limitation action, alleging that (1) while passengers for hire on the Ben Franklin Yacht, they were assaulted and injured by fellow passengers, [2] and (2) the vessel's crewmembers caused these injuries by providing inadequate security and overserving alcohol to passengers. The claimants asserted that the assaults began while they were still onboard the vessel and while the vessel was in the process of berthing at Pier 24.

         While cross-motions for summary judgment were pending, the District Court sua sponte ordered argument and invited briefing on the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction. After hearing oral argument, the District Court determined that the test for maritime jurisdiction had not been met and dismissed the limitation action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. For the reasons discussed below, we will reverse.

         II Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

         We have jurisdiction over this appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review de novo a district court's determination of its own admiralty jurisdiction.[3]Hargus v. Ferocious & Impetuous, LLC, 840 F.3d 133, 135 (3d Cir. 2016) (citing Maher Terminals, LLC v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 805 F.3d 98, 104 ...


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