“Knee Deep In The Water Somewhere . . .” Plaintiff Injured by flying coffee cup cannot invoke maritime jurisdiction

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Virgin islands (pd)
If you are like me, you have probably wondered: If I were standing on a boat in the Virgin Islands and was injured when someone tossed "an empty insulated coffee cup" at me, could I invoke a federal court's maritime jurisdiction? Well, we now have the answer in the form of the Third Circuit's opinion in Hargus v. Ferocious and Impetuous, LLC.

In Hargus, plaintiff was a passenger on a boat, the "One Love," which was owned by Ferocious and Impetuous, LLC. He rented the boat along with some friends to sail from St. Thomas to various points in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Hargus was standing on the deck of the boat while it was anchored in "knee deep" water, close to shore. Some of the other passengers, who were standing on shore, threw beer cans at Hargus (the opinion does not explain why they did this). Upon seeing this, the captain of the boat, who was standing nearby the passengers who threw the beer cans, threw "an empty insulated plastic coffee cup at Hargus" (the opinion does not explain this either). The coffee cup hit him in the temple. He did not lose consciousness or complain about any injury at the time, and the boat continued on its voyage without further incident.

Two days after the incident, plaintiff sought medical attention after experiencing pain and impaired vision, which he attributed to being hit by the coffee cup. He was diagnosed with a concussion and a mild contusion. (The opinion notes that he had a history of head trauma, having suffered 10-12 prior concussions.) He was not prescribed any medication and was allowed to return to work without restrictions. He did not seek additional treatment until one year later when he went back to the doctor, complaining of headaches, memory loss, mood swings, and neck pains.

Shortly after his last visit to the doctor, plaintiff sued the captain, the owner of the boat and several others. He sued in federal court in the Virgin Islands, asserting maritime jurisdiction. After a two-day bench trial, the district court concluded that the captain was liable for negligence and the boat was jointly and severally liable in rem. Defendants appealed.

The Third Circuit vacated the district court's decision and remanded the case back to the district court to be dismissed. The Third Circuit held that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute. It noted that the "fundamental interest giving rise to maritime jurisdiction [was] the protection of maritime commerce." For that reason, to invoke jurisdiction, a party must "satisfy conditions both of location and of connection with maritime activity." The first factor is straightforward. To fall within a federal court's maritime jurisdiction, the alleged tort must have "occurred on navigable water" or the injury, if suffered on land,  have have been caused by a "vessel on navigable water." The second factor is less straightforward, and is only satisfied if the "general features of the incident involved" had "a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce."

In Hargus, the Third Circuit held that, even if the location factor was satisfied, the case failed the "connection with maritime activity" factor and therefore the district court lacked jurisdiction. It described its analysis of this factor as follows:

This analysis requires us to assess the “potential” disruptive effects that the type of incident involved could have on maritime commerce, not whether the particular incident at hand actually disrupted maritime commerce.  In so doing, we must describe the incident “at an intermediate level of possible generality.” The purpose of this exercise is to ascertain “whether the  incident could be seen within a class of incidents that posed more than a fanciful risk to commercial shipping.”

The court then distinguished the facts in Hargus from situations that "posed more than a fanciful risk to commercial shipping." For example, it cited to a case involving a fire on a recreational vessel docked at a marina. This type of incident had "the potential to disrupt maritime commerce because the fire could have spread to a nearby commercial vessel or made the marina inaccessible for commercial vessels." The court also referenced a case involving a crane on a barge that struck a freight tunnel running under the Chicago River, causing the tunnel and several downtown buildings to flood. This type of incident had the potential to disrupt maritime commerce because it could "lead to a disruption in the water course itself" or "could lead to restrictions on the navigational use of the waterway during required repairs."

The Third Circuit contrasted these cases with another, which involved a "brawl on a permanent floating dock between passengers of two boats." The court held that this type of incident did not pose more than "a fanciful risk" to maritime commerce because it created no risk of obstructing the free passage of ships on navigable waters, no disruption to the water course itself, and no threat to any nearby commercial vessels.

The Third Circuit then concluded that Hargus was more like the case involving brawling passengers than the other cases. It first described the type of activity at issue in Hargus as only a lawyer could — "throwing a small inert object from land at an individual onboard an anchored vessel" — and then concluded:

[T]hrowing an object like a coffee cup from land at  an  individual  standing  on  an  anchored  vessel does not threaten a disruptive effect on maritime commerce because it does not have the potential of disrupting navigation, damaging nearby commercial vessels, or causing a commercial  vessel  to  divert  from  its  course.

Accordingly, the federal court lacked jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit and it had to be dismissed.

[PRACTICE POINTER: Couldn't the defendants argue that plaintiff assumed the risk that he might get hurt when he agreed to sale on a boat owned by an entity called "Ferocious and Impetuous," considering that "ferocious" means "fierce or violent" and "impetuous" means "done quickly and without thought"? The name of the company seems to have predicted what happened here — tossing beer cans and coffee cups at someone on the boat from the beach.]

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