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Injured Merchant Seaman's Lawsuit Against Navy Will be Heard

Jan 23, 2006 | A former merchant seaman who was injured while working for U.S. Navy contractors will have his day in court, a federal appeals court ruled Jan. 13.

After suffering a series of knee injuries while working on four different U.S. Navy ships from May 1999 through December 2000, Edward Arthur sued his employers Maersk Inc. and Dyn Marine Services of Virginia Inc. for negligence under the Jones Act.

Arthur later learned that, under federal law, Maersk and Dyn Marine were protected from being sued for his injuries because the two companies were operating the four ships on behalf of the U.S. Navy.

"The four ships on which Arthur worked were operated by Maersk and Dyn Marine but were owned by the United States Navy," Judge D. Michael Fisher explained in the Jan. 13 ruling of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "Contracts between the companies and the United States provided that the Navy would maintain control of the ships while the companies would offer day-to-day personnel and operational support."

Federal law "provide(s) a remedy against the United States, to the exclusion of all others, for a seaman injured on board a ship owned by or operated on behalf of the Navy," Fisher wrote.

District Court: Arthur Should Have Known They Were Navy Ships

In his original lawsuit filed May 16, 2002, Arthur did not include the United States as a defendant. He alleged that Maersk and Dyn Marine, as owners and/or operators of the vessels, had failed to maintain the deck and other facilities and were liable for negligence under the Jones Act.

After learning that the United States would be the appropriate party to sue for his injuries, Arthur filed an amended complaint on May 13, 2003, that repeated the allegations of his original lawsuit but asserted that the United States was liable for his injuries under federal statute.

The United States then filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the 2-year statute of limitations in the statute had expired. (The statute of limitations for Arthur's claim against the United States expired in December 2002.)

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted the motion to dismiss Arthur's lawsuit. The court asserted that Arthur, "as an experienced merchant seaman," should have known that the four ships on which he worked the USNS Stalwart Tagos-1, USNS Capable, USNS Littlehales and USNS Assertive were owned by or operated on behalf of the Navy by virtue of the "USNS" designation.

Arthur's new lawsuit could have circumvented the 2-year statute of limitations if he could have established that the claims in his new lawsuit against the United States related back to his original lawsuit. While the district court determined Arthur met the requirements to prove his new case related back to his original suit, the court still dismissed the suit because the court said Arthur was "unduly dilatory" took too much time in bringing his case against the United States.

The appeals court disagreed.

Appeals Court: U.S. Should Have Known It Would be a Defendant

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, in sorting through this complicated case on federal civil procedure, said the key question is whether the United States knew or should have known that but for a mistake on Arthur's part in determining the appropriate party to sue it would have been named in Arthur's original lawsuit.

If, indeed, Arthur had made a mistake in failing to name the United States as the defendant in his original lawsuit, his new lawsuit could circumvent the 2-year statute of limitations.

The United States argued that Arthur, as an experienced merchant seaman, should have known that USNS meant the ships were public vessels and Arthur, consequently, did not make a mistake in failing to sue the United States the first time around.

The appeals court, though, said the words "USNS" on the ship do not definitively prove that Maersk and Dyn Marine were merely operating the ships on behalf of the Navy.

The way the case unfolded supports the assertion that Arthur made an honest mistake in failing to sue the United States, Fisher wrote for the appeals court.

"The original complaint did not name the United States as a party, even though it would have been in Arthur's interest to do so," Fisher wrote. "The answers to the complaint did not indicate that the United States owned the ships, and the companies did not allege that the United States was the proper defendant until October 2002.

"The only reasonable conclusion that can be gleaned from the record is that Arthur made a mistake as to the proper party when he filed the original complaint and that this mistake was not finally corrected until December 2002, after expiration of the statute of limitations."

Consequently, the United States should have known it would have been named in the lawsuit if not for Arthur's mistake, Fisher wrote.

"The United States undoubtedly knew that the claims in the complaint should have been brought against it," Fisher wrote. "Indeed, the operational contracts (drafted by the United States) recognize that Maersk and Dyn Marine 'may become involved in litigation maintainable against the United States under the Public Vessels Act [and] the Suits in Admiralty Act' and require that the companies provide immediate notice of such an action and 'cooperate with [g]overnment counsel [in] maintaining the defense.' An employee of Dyn Marine confirmed that, in these types of cases, it is common for a private company to be named in the original complaint but later replaced with the United States, as the proper defendant."

The appeals court reversed the district court's decision and remanded the case back to the district court.

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