In a case that is wholly unique to maritime law, our attorneys Michael Winkleman and Adria Notari were able to achieve a win at the appellate court which allowed the firm to arrest a yacht that was involved in a serious injury to one of the firm’s clients. On June 6, 2018, we received a favorable appellate opinion in Minott v. M/Y Brunello, an Eleventh Circuit Federal Appeals Court case in which our maritime injury client — plaintiff John Minott — alleged that he was entitled to enforce a maritime lien for damages arising from a maritime tort. The Eleventh Circuit Court’s decision to reverse the denial of the district court (denying the warrant in rem for the arrest of the vessel at-issue) has given the plaintiff an opportunity to litigate his claim against the defendants and obtain the damages that he is rightfully owed. The court’s opinion can be viewed here.
In the present case, our client worked as an employee of Butch Kemp Designs, which provided maintenance and repair services to various vessels, including the Brunello. The Brunello was docked in Dania, Florida at the time.
Minott was assigned to perform maintenance services for the Brunello, and as he attempted to board the vessel by walking up the gangway (from the dock up to the deck of the vessel), the Brunello was moved suddenly and unexpectedly — either by its captain or by other crew members — thus causing the gangway to disconnect from the vessel and Minott to fall overboard. Minott sustained severe injuries as a result which included a spinal fusion surgery.
Minott subsequently filed a complaint in district court against the defendant to enforce a maritime lien for damages arising from his injury. Minott then moved to direct the court to issue a warrant in rem for the arrest of the Brunello. Minott argued that he was entitled to a maritime lien, and therefore entitled to an arrest of the vessel.
The district court denied Minott’s motion on the basis that a maritime tort could not justify a maritime lien and implied that they did not have admiralty jurisdiction as Minott’s activities were deemed to have minimal potential to disrupt maritime commerce and were not significantly tied to maritime activity.
As his lawyers, we were confident this was not the correct decision and thus the decision was appealed to the next higher court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appeals Court Reversed Decision of District Court
The Appeals Court first had to determine whether they had interlocutory jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s appeal. Interlocutory jurisdiction is only granted in circumstances where the district court’s order resolves one or more claims on the merits.
The Court held that the district court’s refusal to issue a warrant in rem for the arrest of the Brunello resolved the claims against the vessel for liability — failure to arrest a vessel prejudices the substantive rights of the parties given the fundamentally “mobile” nature of a maritime vessel. The Appeals Court determined that if the plaintiff were unable to secure a warrant in rem for the arrest of the vessel, he might lose his substantive right to bring an action and enforce a maritime lien (as the vessel may simply leave the jurisdiction).
After determining that they have interlocutory jurisdiction over the appeal, the Appeals Court evaluated whether the district court did, in fact, have admiralty jurisdiction over the incident at-issue, and whether the tort involved gave rise to a maritime lien.
Whether the district court had admiralty jurisdiction in a maritime tort case depends on the tort having occurred on navigable waters and the tort having a sufficient “connection” to maritime activity.
In the present case, the Appeals Court determined that the incident clearly gave rise to a maritime tort — it occurred on navigable water, as Minott was on the gangway when it disconnected from the berthed vessel (maritime law encompasses the gangway of a vessel). Further, Minott fell overboard from the gangway, into “navigable waters.”
A tort will qualify as sufficiently connected maritime activity if the plaintiff can show that: 1) the incident is potentially disruptive to maritime commerce, and 2) their activities had a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.
Potentially Disruptive to Maritime Commerce
The Court found that the accident had a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce, even if the effect may have not been “widespread,” as Minott was employed to perform maintenance and repairs, and his injury could disrupt the repair of the Brunello and other vessels that he was employed to work on.
Substantial Relationship to Traditional Maritime Activity
The Court found that the district court incorrectly examined Minott’s activities, and not those of the tortfeasor (here, the Brunello and its crew) in determining whether there is a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. Examining the Brunello and its activities, the Appeals Court determined that the movement of the Brunello (by crew) on navigable waters was unquestionably a maritime activity.
Maritime Tort Gives Victim a Lien Against Vessel
The Appeals Court held that the district court incorrectly ruled that only the provision of maritime necessaries could give rise to a maritime lien, when in fact, maritime torts can give the injury victim an actionable maritime lien against the vessel at-issue (by operation of general maritime law). Claims for maritime torts — including those that involve personal injury — entitle the victim to a maritime lien and in rem proceedings (which may be brought to enforce a maritime lien).
The Court further held that when an in rem action exists, then the court is required by law to issue a warrant for the arrest of the vessel to ensure that it does not leave the jurisdiction and thereby frustrate the ability of the plaintiff to secure their substantive rights.
We are very pleased with this appellate court victory in a case that is entirely unique to maritime law.
We Can Help — Contact Us for Further Assistance
If you have been injured in a maritime accident — whether taking place entirely on-board a vessel, or while entering or disembarking from a vessel — then you may have a right of action against the defendant for damages, which may include a right to enforce a maritime lien (and compel an arrest of the vessel at-issue). Maritime disputes can be quite confusing for those who are unfamiliar with this area of law, as there are a number of unique legal challenges that can impact how one’s case plays out.
Here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A., our team of maritime lawyers has extensive experience representing those who have suffered harm in various maritime and admiralty law scenarios. We are relentless advocates and approach the litigation process with an aggressive mindset —, we are ready, willing, and capable of successfully taking a case to trial, thus giving us additional leverage during settlement negotiations. We don’t shy away from highly-complex cases of first impression, either. We have a well-established history of successfully representing clients in landmark cases.
Interested in learning more?
We encourage you to contact us to speak to one of our experienced maritime lawyers about your claims. We will evaluate your case and help you understand next-steps.