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Cucu v. Super

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

May 30, 2013

Alex J. Cucu, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Tracy Holmes Super, Administratrix of the Estate of Emma Margaret Nahas Defendant.

Memorandum of Opinion and Order

PATRICIA A. GAUGHAN, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court upon Claimant Tracy Holmes Super's Motion to Stay this Action and Lift Restraining Order Against Prosecution of Her State Court Suit (Doc. 13). This action arises under the Admiralty laws. For the reasons that follow, the motion should be DENIED until such time as Super either files an "F(7) motion" challenging the value of the vessel or concedes the value placed on the vessel and its freight as asserted by the vessel owner. Upon satisfaction of this condition, the claimant may notify the Court and the Court will lift the restraining order.

FACTS

Plaintiffs, Alex J. Cucu ("Cucu"), Deerhaven Group Auto and Marine, LLC ("Deerhaven"), and Deerhaven Group, LLC (also, "Deerhaven"), bring this action seeking exoneration from or limitation of liability under the Vessel Owners Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30501 and Rule F of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty and Maritime Claims of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

According to the complaint, on June 29, 2012, Tracy Holmes Super, administratrix of the Estate of Emma Margaret Nahas, brought suit against Cucu and Deerhaven in state court. The state court complaint alleges that Nahas died during a boating excursion. Super further alleges that Cucu owns the boat and Deerhaven is in the business of brokering used watercraft, including the boat at issue.

After the filing of the complaint in this Court, Cucu and Deerhaven moved the Court for an order approving a security bond. In addition, Cucu and Deerhaven moved for issuance of notice and a restraining order preventing the prosecution of the state court case and the commencement or further prosecution of any actions relating to the occurrence. This Court granted the motion. Super now moves to lift the restraining order and Cucu and Deerhaven oppose the motion.

ANALYSIS

Super argues that this is a "single claim, inadequate fund case." According to Super, the stay should be lifted because she filed certain stipulations related to the "limitation of liability" provision of the Limitation Act. Super claims that, as a result of the stipulations, the Court should lift the restraining order and allow the case to proceed in state court. In the event plaintiff succeeds in state court and the damage award is greater than defendants' claimed interest in the vessel at issue, then the parties will return to this Court. According to Super, the Court will then determine "only (1) whether [Cucu and Deerhaven] had privity to or knowledge of the acts, events or conditions upon which [their] liability was based in the state court action and, if so (2) the value of [Cucu and Deerhaven's] interest in the [vessel], together with pending freight." Super argues that she is not required to stipulate to this Court's exclusive right to determine "exoneration" issues. Rather, her stipulation to this Court's exclusive right to have limitation issues determined here is sufficient.

In response, Cucu and Deerhaven argue that, although Super is currently the only claimant, there is nothing to foreclose additional claimants from coming forward. These parties also argue that Super's stipulations are insufficient to warrant a lifting of the restraining order. For example, Super does not stipulate to this Court's exclusive jurisdiction to have exoneration issues determined here. Nor does Super concede the value of the limitation fund. Rather, Super expressly reserves the right to challenge the adequacy of the fund "at a later time." In addition, Super expressly reserves the right to contest standing under the Limitation Act. Accordingly, Cucu and Deerhaven argue that the stipulations fall far short of protecting their rights.

The dispute in this case arises because of tension between two federal statutes. On the one hand, the Limitation Act provides:

The liability of the owner of any vessel... for any... loss... done... without the privity or knowledge of such owner or owners, shall not... exceed the amount or value of the interest of such owner in such vessel, and her freight then pending.

46 U.S.C. § 183(a). Rule F of the Supplemental Rules of for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims provides the procedure for a Limitation Act action. Included in those rules is a provision requiring the Court to "enjoin further prosecution of any action or proceeding against the plaintiff."

On the other hand, 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) provides that district courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction over "any case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled. " This is commonly referred to as the "savings to suitors" clause, which preserves common law rights in certain cases, including the right to a jury trial. Thus, a conflict arises between the statutes in cases in which claimants ...


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