On June 8, 2022, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware issued a ruling in which it held that the owner of a vessel involved in scallop fishing could limit its liability for a savage murder aboard the vessel, but needed to include the value of its scallop permit in the limitation fund, since the permit was an appurtenance of the vessel. This decision could have implications for owners and/or operators of other fishing vessels, including menhaden or pogie boats and shrimp trawlers, who seek to limit their liability under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §30501 et seq.
In September 2018, a first mate aboard a scallop fishing vessel was stabbed to death by a fellow crew member while the vessel was operating off the northeastern seaboard of the United States. The vessel had been offshore for five days with seven (7) crew members. Although one of the deckhands aboard the vessel was exhibiting unusual behavior, the captain never determined that he was under the influence of drugs. The deckhand-assailant stabbed the mate 12 times with a fishing knife and struck another crew member on the head with a sledge hammer.
The corporation which owned the vessel had no formal policy or procedures for hiring. However, crew members were asked to certify that they had no injury, illness or other medical problems which would prevent them from performing their assigned duties and to confirm that they were not bringing any firearms or drugs onboard the vessel. The assailant made those certifications before being hired.
Following the attack, the vessel owner filed a limitation action seeking exoneration from and/or limitation of liability. The decedent’s widow filed a claim in that action alleging four counts under the Jones Act for negligence and four counts under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness.
This matter was tried before the bench. Prior to being hired, the assailant had previously worked with the captain on two prior vessels, for several years. During that time, he was found to be a good worker and did not appear to be argumentative, violent or on drugs. On the trip in question, there was some evidence presented that the assailant was under the influence of drugs and/or had used drugs, but the court did not find that evidence credible.
The court acknowledged that a ship owner is not liable every time a seaman gets drunk and does damage to a member of the crew. However, liability for unseaworthiness can arise when a seaman has such “a savage and vicious nature” as to endanger others who work on the vessel.
After the assault, criminal charges were brought against the assailant. Initially, he was found to be mentally incompetent to understand the charges that were brought against him. However, after a two year hospitalization, he was found to be competent to stand for trial. He ultimately pled guilty to second degree murder, attempted murder and assault with a dangerous weapon. During trial in the limitation action, the court took judicial notice of those developments and guilty pleas.
After trial on the merits, the court found that the fishing vessel was unseaworthy because the assailant had a vicious and savage disposition beyond the usual standards of the calling. Since the court found that the vessel was unseaworthy, it did not address negligence.
The court also found that the managing owners of the company did not have privity or knowledge of the assailant’s drug use or propensity for violence and was therefore entitled to limit its liability to the value of the vessel.
A critical issue before the court was whether the scallop permit was an appurtenance of the vessel. The permit was valued at $5 million and under federal law, was required to be carried on the vessel and was presumed to be transferred with the vessel. As such, the court found that it qualified as an appurtenance and its value had to be included in the limitation fund. Since the court also determined that the value of the vessel was $1.1 million, it held that the limitation fund was appropriately $6.1 million and that the vessel owner could limit its liability to that amount.
This decision could be instructive for parties defending or filing claims in a limitation action involving any type of fishing vessel, including the multiple types of such vessels operating in U.S. waters. A question that will have to be asked is whether or not the value of any permit must be included in the limitation fund.
In re Captain Juan, Inc., Civil Action 19-cv-10719-PVS, United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts (June 2022)