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Knudson v. M/V American Spirit

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 30, 2017

M/V AMERICAN SPIRIT, et al., Defendants.



         This matter arises out of personal injuries allegedly sustained by Plaintiff Jeffrey Todd Knudson in the service of his employer, Defendant Liberty Steamship Company (“Liberty”), while serving aboard a Great Lakes freighter owned by Defendant American Steamship Company(“American”). The case is before the court on defendants' motion for partial judgment on the pleadings or partial summary judgment, plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment dismissing certain affirmative defenses, defendants' motion to bifurcate, and defendants' objections to the magistrate judge's order granting plaintiff's motion to compel.


         Mr. Knudson was hired by Liberty as a permanent replacement worker in March of 2011 after LSC's negotiations with the union representing LSC's unlicensed seamen failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement. Knudson was a non-union employee.

         On January 11, 2012, Mr. Knudson was serving as a General Vessel Utility, or deckhand, aboard M/V AMERICAN INTEGRITY. The vessel was approaching the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Knudson was tasked with going over the side of the vessel to the concrete dock at the locks below in order to moor the vessel as it passed through the locks. Vessel crew members were lowered from the deck of the vessel to the dock face below by way of a bosun's chair. One of the vessel's officers controls the crew member's descent in the bosun's chair by way of a line wrapped numerous times through a cleat on the deck of the vessel. This process is routine for a seaman and is performed every time any Great Lakes freighter passes through the locks, takes on fuel, or calls at nearly any dock. Mr. Knudson had performed this task on numerous occasions.

         On the day in question, another deckhand, Todd Wilde, was put over the side of the vessel and lowered to the dock without incident. Mr. Knudson was then prepared to go over the side and join his crewmate. The vessel's first mate handling the line that day was Mr. Olney. During the procedure, one wrap of the line came free of the cleat, causing Knudson's descent to the dock, 30 to 35 feet below, to be more rapid than it should have been. The line is wrapped around the cleat several times, and in this instance one wrap came free. While Knudson landed on his feet on the dock face, he contends he was injured as a result of the incident.

         Since the incident, Knudson has been restricted from further duty, and has been paid maintenance benefits and travel expenses. For the first two years American paid Knudson at the rate of $8 per day, which was the rate provided in Knudson's non-union, non-collectively bargained contract. Knudson contends that he was forced to live with his father, as he could not support himself on $8 per day. When Mr. Knudson complained that $8 was not enough to live on, defendants allegedly provided a Claims Arbitration Agreement (“CAA”) for him to sign whereby he would acknowledge that defendants were obligated to pay $8 per day in maintenance and he would relinquish his right to a jury trial. Mr. Knudson refused to sign the CAA.

         After two years, Mr. Knudson supplied defendants with proof of his shared living expenses and demanded a maintenance rate of $45 per day.Defendants ultimately agreed to pay $45 per day, retroactive to the date of the incident. In all, defendants have paid Mr. Knudson maintenance benefits and travel expenses in excess of $96, 000. Defendants have also paid Knudson for all out-of-pocket medical expenses and medical bills, totaling over $89, 000.

         I. Defendants' Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings or Alternatively Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         A. Legal Standard

         1. Rule12(c) Judgment on the Pleadings

         A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) is reviewed under the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See e.g., Sensations, Inc. v. City of Grand Rapids, 526 F.3d 291, 295-96 (6th Cir. 2008). Rule 12(b)(6) allows the Court to make an assessment as to whether the plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted. Under the Supreme Court's articulation of the Rule 12(b)(6) standard in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554-56 (2007), the Court must construe the complaint in favor of the plaintiff, accept the allegations of the complaint as true, and determine whether plaintiff's factual allegations present plausible claims. “[N]aked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement” are insufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, plaintiff's pleading for relief must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Ass'n of Cleveland Fire Fighters v. City of Cleveland, 502 F.3d 545, 548 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atlantic, 550 U.S. at 555) (citations and quotations omitted). Even though the complaint need not contain “detailed” factual allegations, its “factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all of the allegations in the complaint are true.” Id. (citing Bell Atlantic, 550 U.S. at 555).

         2. Rule 56 Summary Judgment

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) empowers the court to render summary judgment "forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." See Redding v. St. Eward, 241 F.3d 530, 532 (6th Cir. 2001). The Supreme Court has affirmed the court's use of summary judgment as an integral part of the fair and efficient administration of justice. The procedure is not a disfavored procedural shortcut. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986); see also Cox v. Kentucky Dept. of Transp., 53 F.3d 146, 149 (6th Cir. 1995).

         The standard for determining whether summary judgment is appropriate is "'whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Amway Distributors Benefits Ass'n v. Northfield Ins. Co., 323 F.3d 386, 390 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986)). The evidence and all reasonable inferences must be construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Redding, 241 F.3d at 532 (6th Cir. 2001). "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original); see also National Satellite Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis, Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th Cir. 2001).

         If the movant establishes by use of the material specified in Rule 56(c) that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the opposing party must come forward with "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." First Nat'l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 270 (1968); see also McLean v. 988011 Ontario, Ltd., 224 F.3d 797, 800 (6th Cir. 2000). Mere allegations or denials in the non-movant's pleadings will not meet this burden, nor will a mere scintilla of evidence supporting the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 252. Rather, there must be evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the non-movant. McLean, 224 F.3d at 800 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         B. Jones Act

         Under maritime law, the Jones Act authorizes seamen to maintain negligence actions for personal injury suffered in the course of employment. 46 U.S.C. § 688. It is the maritime plaintiff's employer who has a duty to provide a safe workplace. Churchwell v. Bluegrass Marine, Inc., 444 F.3d 898, 907 (6th Cir. 2006). Recovery under the Jones Act is therefore only available to a seaman against the seaman's employer. Liberty is Knudson's employer, while American is the owner of the vessel but is not the employer. American moves for judgment as a matter of law in its favor on Knudson's Jones Act claim. In its reply brief, Knudson concedes it has no viable Jones Act claim against American.

         However, plaintiff moves for leave to amend to plead a cause of action for negligence against American as a third party. Plaintiff recently took the Rule 30(b)(6) deposition of American's chief operating officer, Mr. McMonagle, who revealed for the first time that the first mate who allegedly dropped plaintiff was an employee of American (not Liberty), subjecting American to vicarious liability for the actions of the first mate. Plaintiff may amend his complaint as requested to allege negligence against American based on the fact that its employee was the one who was operating the bosun chair when plaintiff was dropped.

         C. Unseaworthiness

         A shipowner owes the seamen employed on its vessel an absolute, nondelegable duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. Harbin v. Interlake S.S. Co, 570 F.2d 99, 103 (6th Cir. 1978). Liberty moves for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff's unseaworthiness claim for the reason that it is not the vessel owner. Plaintiff concedes that it has no viable claim for unseaworthiness against Liberty.

         Judgment as a matter of law is granted in favor of Liberty on plaintiff's unseaworthiness claim.

         D. Punitive Damages

         1. Maintenance and Cure

         As a general rule, damages recoverable under the Jones Act or general maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness are limited to pecuniary losses only. See Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 489 U.S. 19 (1990). Almost thirty years after deciding Miles, the Supreme Court recognized an exception to the general rule and permitted the recovery of punitive damages for the willful failure to provide adequate maintenance and cure benefits under general maritime law. Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009). The Townsend Court recognized that Miles dealt with a wrongful death action, and that Congress chose to limit the damages available for wrongful death actions under two statutes: the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act. In differentiating maintenance and cure benefits from wrongful death in the maritime context, the Townsend Court pointed out that the only reason a general federal cause of action for wrongful death on the high seas and in territorial waters existed was because of congressional action.

As a result, to determine the remedies available under the common-law wrongful-death action, “an admiralty court should look primarily to these legislative enactments for policy guidance.” Miles, 498 U.S. at 27, 111 S.Ct. 317. It would have been illegitimate to create common-law remedies that exceeded those remedies statutorily available under the Jones Act and DOHSA. See id., at 36, 111 S.Ct. 317 (“We will not create, under our admiralty powers, a remedy ... ...

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