United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division
CHARLES J. KAHN, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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,
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
Jeanne Vahle's Status
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.”)
“[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. 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 ...