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Helm v. Vahle

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

April 7, 2017

BRIDGET HELM, Plaintiff,
JEANNE VAHLE, Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF RYAN VAHLE, Deceased, and S/V “PAIN KILLER, ” a 2002 -38' Voyage Maxum Catamaran sailing vessel, her engines, appurtenances, spares, and equipment appertaining whether on board or not, Defendants.



         This admiralty action in rem concerns the validity and priority of maritime liens claimed by both the plaintiff, Bridget Helm, and Jeanne Vahle against the S/V Pain Killer, a 38-foot catamaran sailing vessel. The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge Jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 for all proceedings in this case, including entry of final judgment. After a bench trial on March 24, 2017, I conclude Jeanne Vahle's actions before the arrest of the S/V Pain Killer do not warrant reducing or extinguishing her maritime lien. In addition, because Jeanne's provision of necessaries occurred after Bridget's, Jeanne's $7, 057.91 claim has priority over Bridget's $150, 000 claim.


         Ryan Vahle bought the Pain Killer in 2012 for approximately $220, 000. In mid-2014, Ryan and Bridget began a relationship. Ryan kept the boat in Pensacola, Florida, either moored or in a local marina. In mid-2015, Ryan and Bridget used the vessel as their primary residence for a month. The couple broke up, however, in September of that year. During the relationship, Bridget made a number of payments for the benefit of the Pain Killer, the most significant of which was a direct payment to Coastal Bank & Trust on the preferred ship's mortgage in the amount of $95, 000. (Exs. A-3, C-16). Ryan and Bridget intended for the mortgagee to apply the $95, 000 to reduce the principal due on the loan. Bridget says her financial contributions toward the vessel total approximately $167, 860. At some point, however, Ryan and Bridget agreed to compromise the amount of Bridget's contributions at $150, 000.

         On February 20, 2016, Ryan went missing, having been last seen that day at an establishment on Bayou Chico in Pensacola. Some 7 days later, Ryan's body was recovered from Pensacola Bay, offshore from the mouth of Bayou Chico. In March, Jeanne was appointed personal representative of Ryan's estate; she funded the upkeep and storage of the Pain Killer, the sole asset of Ryan's estate, until the vessel's arrest. (Exs. 2 - 17). With Ryan's death, a period of turmoil began in the lives of his parents, Jeanne and Mike Vahle.

         On March 28, 2016, Bridget filed a “Notice of Claim of Lien” for $123, 640.91 with the United States Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center. (Ex. A-1). On the same day, Bridget mailed the Vahles a letter notifying them of “her financial investment in the vessel” and that “[s]he [was] prepared to satisfy the remaining first mortgage on the vessel [(which, at the time, had a balance of approximately $49, 000)], ” upon which she proposed to “take title to the vessel, and assume all of the ongoing expenses relative to same.” (Ex. C-1). The estate initially expressed doubt as to the validity of Bridget's claim, arguing her contributions constituted gifts rather than a loan. (Exs. A-2, C-2). Subsequently, however, the parties engaged in unsuccessful settlement negotiations. (Ex. C-3).

         On May 27, 2016, Bridget brought suit in state court seeking a judgment against Ryan's estate for the money Bridget loaned Ryan. (Ex. A-1). In August 2016, I yti Bridget and the estate stipulated to entry of a $150, 000 judgment in favor of Bridget. (Exs. A-4, A-5). Bridget perfected the judgment by filing a judgment lien certificate with the Florida Secretary of State on August 11, 2016. (Ex. B).

         In September 2016, Mike Vahle contracted a Vibrio bacterial infection, resulting in a severe case of necrotizing fasciitis. Mike's health deteriorated rapidly and, ultimately, his right leg was amputated, the physicians having decided that such was required to save his life. Until November, Mike underwent intensive treatment and therapy, requiring that Jeanne and Mike make 3 trips a week from Pensacola to the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile, Alabama.

         After entry of the state court judgment, Jeanne and Bridget continued to discuss the possibility of transferring possession the Pain Killer to Bridget. (Exs. C-4 - C-12). The negotiations, however, soured when Bridget and Jeanne could not agree to the amount Jeanne should be reimbursed for administering the estate and maintaining the vessel. (Exs. C-4 - C-12). On November 23, 2016, plaintiff brought this in rem action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(h) against the Pain Killer, seeking to foreclose a maritime lien created by the provision of necessaries to the vessel under 46 U.S.C. § 31342. (Doc. 1). Bridget had the vessel arrested on December 12, 2016. (Doc. 17).


         I. Jeanne Vahle's Status

         Before turning to the main dispute concerning the validity and priority of the claimed maritime liens, I must address a preliminary issue. Jeanne Vahle has only appeared in this case in her capacity as personal representative of Ryan's estate. She did not personally intervene in this action nor file an individual claim against the Pain Killer. Because Ryan's estate owns the Pain Killer, Jeanne cannot claim a maritime lien on the estate's behalf or in her capacity as personal representative. See Sasportes v. M/V Sol de Copacabana, 581 F.2d 1204, 1207 (5th Cir. 1978) (“[A]n owner, part owner, or joint venturer cannot hold a maritime lien.”) (citations omitted); L&L Elecs., Inc. v. M/V Osprey, 764 F.Supp.2d 270, 272 (D. Mass. 2011) (“The ‘stranger to the vessel' doctrine dictates that owners of a vessel, or those that have authority over a vessel such that they are in a similar position to owners, are denied maritime liens.”) (citations omitted).

         Nevertheless, “[o]n motion or on its own, the court may at any time, on just terms, add or drop a party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 21. Here, adding Jeanne as a party in her individual capacity is appropriate. Nothing could be more clear than Bridget's acknowledgement and acquiescence as to Jeanne's status as a claimant against the vessel. The thrust of Bridget's case is that Jeanne's claim should be denied, or at least denied priority, due to what Bridget characterizes as Jeanne's delaying tactics concerning the sale of the vessel. (Doc. 28). This issue formed the core of Bridget's direct examination of Jeanne, who was called as Bridget's first witness during the case in chief. The pleadings and pretrial memorandum are replete with acknowledgement of Jeanne's claim, if only to question its validity, but without arguing that Jeanne lacks status to make her claims.[1] In sum, Bridget's conduct during this case would make little sense if she did not believe Jeanne could seek relief in this action. Therefore, to conform to the parties' expectations concerning this case, and in the interest of judicial economy and fairness, Jeanne Vahle will be recognized as asserting an individual claim against the Pain Killer. See In re Neurontin Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., 810 F.Supp.2d 366, 370 (D. Mass. 2011) (“Courts have held that parties may be added after trial has concluded ‘to add a party who for some innocent reason has not been made a party to the ...

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