Recent Opinion from Eastern District of Virginia Clarifies “Notice of a Claim”

In a recent maritime case, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia addressed the issue of what constitutes enough “notice” to start the six-month clock for limitation of a claim.

What Constitutes Notice of a Claim

46 U.S.C § 30511(a) permits the owner of a vessel to bring a limitation action in a United States District Court, as long as it is brought “within six months after a claimant gives the owner written notice of a claim.” However, § 30511(a) does not define what constitutes “notice” to trigger the six-month deadline to file the limitation action.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently addressed the issue of what constitutes enough “notice” to start the six-month clock for limitation in the Matter of Vulcan Constr. Materials, LLC, No. 2:18CV668, 2019 WL 2016706 (E.D. Va. May 7, 2019), reconsideration denied, No. 2:18CV668, 2019 WL 3208648 (E.D. Va. July 16, 2019).

Matter of Vulcan Constr. Materials, LLC – Background

The defendant-in-limitation, Robert Dervishian, Jr. (“Dervishian”), sought the dismissal of Vulcan Construction Materials, LLC’s (“Vulcan”) Limitation of Liability claim. Dervishian was injured when he was assisting with the mooring of barges at a terminal in Charles City, Virginia. Dervishian alleged that during the mooring operation, he fell approximately eight feet from the deck of a barge, suffering serious injuries requiring the amputation of his left leg.

Approximately two months after the alleged accident, Vulcan’s registered agent for service was hand-delivered a cryptic note which stated, in part:

Please be advised that we represent Robert Dervishian, Jr., in connection with serious personal injuries he sustained on February 22, 2018 at the Shirley Plantation Dock due to the alleged negligence of the employee of Vulcan Construction Materials, L.L.C., Kim Todd, while Mr. Todd was operating the Jeanie Clay tugboat. A claim may be filed.

Vulcan argued that the letter did not constitute “notice” as required by § 30511(a).

The Court’s Determination

The Eastern District of Virginia used two tests to determine the sufficiency of the letter. The first test analyzed whether:

  1. the letter informs the vessel owner of claimants’ demand of a right or supposed right,
  2. blames the vessel owner for any damage or loss, or
  3. calls upon the vessel owner for something due to the claimant.

The second test used looked to whether the letter indicated a reasonable possibility that the claim may exceed the value of the ship.

The Court ultimately determined that the note was insufficient to put Vulcan on notice of a claim and thus, the six-month period for filing a limitation action had not been triggered. Specifically, the Court held that:

  1. the vagueness and ambiguity of the note failed to provide sufficient context that would put the recipient on notice of a potential claim,
  2. the note lacked specificity, requiring the recipient to infer that a claim “may” be filed,
  3. and most importantly, the note failed to quantify the claim in any manner.

On July 16, 2019, Judge Robert Doumar of the Eastern District of Virginia denied Dervishian’s request for reconsideration.