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Bell v. Beyel Brothers, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

April 10, 2017

CRAIG BELL and DENNIS STANTON, Plaintiffs,
v.
BEYEL BROTHERS, INC., MICHAEL WAYNE EVERETT KUCHLER, and BERT AMMONS, Defendants. BEYEL BROTHERS, INC., MICHAEL WAYNE EVERETT KUCHLER, and BERT AMMONS, Plaintiffs,
v.
CRAIG BELL, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION DENYING COUNTER-DEFENDANT CRAIG BELL'S MOTION TO DISMISS AMENDED COUNTERCLAIM

          DO ALD M .M IDDLEBROOK S UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS CAUSE comes before the Court on Plaintiff/Counter-Defendant Craig Bell's ("Bell") Motion to Dismiss Amended Counterclaim ("Motion"), filed on February 3, 2017. (DE 32). Defendants/Counter-Plaintiffs Beyel Brothers, Inc. ("Beyel Bros."), Michael Wayne Everett Kuchler ("Kuchler"), and Bert Ammons ("Amnions") (collectively, the "Defendants" or "Counter-Plaintiffs") filed a Response in opposition on February 17, 2017 (DE 33), to which Bell replied on February 24, 2017 (DE 34). For the reasons stated below, the Motion is denied.

         BACKGROUND

         The instant admiralty action concerns the allocation of liability for personal injuries and property damage arising out of a boat capsizing. (Amended Complaint (DE 6), hereinafter "Complaint" or Compl., " at ¶ 1). Bell is the owner of the boat in question, a 16' Twin Vee vessel (the "vessel"). (Id. at ¶ 2). Plaintiff Dennis Stanton ("Stanton, " with Bell, the "Plaintiffs" or "Counter-Defendants") is Bell's friend and was a passenger onboard the vessel. (Id. at ¶ 3). Beyel Bros, is a Florida corporation that, among other services, provides inland and ocean towing. (Id. at ¶ 4). On March 9, 2016, Bell and Stanton were fishing from the vessel in the Indian River. (Id. at ¶ 7). At some point, "the vessel's outboard gas engine failed." (Id.). Although Plaintiffs tried to navigate the vessel to a nearby boat ramp, the wind and tide caused it instead to drift towards a "rocky area off Fisherman's Warf Marina." (Id.).

         Thereafter, Kuchler, a Beyel Bros, employee, maneuvered one the company's "Jon Boats" to Bell's vessel. (Id. at ¶ 8). Kuchler reached the vessel, tied it to the Jon Boat, and began towing it toward a boat ramp. (Id.). During this process, another Beyel Bros, employee, Ammons, was operating the tugboat Brittany Beyel. (Id. at ¶ 9). According to the Complaint, the tugboat either collided with the vessel or produced a "wash, " the result in either case being that Bell and Stanton were thrown from the vessel into the water. (Id.). Bell and Stanton both allegedly sustained injuries from the ejection and Bell's vessel was damaged. (Id. at ¶ 10).

         Plaintiffs filed a Complaint against Defendants on October 25, 2016 (DE 1), and amended it once, on November 16, 2016 (DE 6). The Amended Complaint contains twelve counts, asserting negligence and negligence per se by each Plaintiff against each Defendant. (Id. at ¶¶ 14-85). Defendants filed an Answer on December 2, 2016 (DE 13), which included one counterclaim against Bell for contributory negligence (id. at 12-13). On January 24, 2017, the Court issued an order dismissing the counterclaim for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. (DE 28). The dismissal was based on the absence of a theory of causation connecting Bell's alleged breaches of duty to Stanton's injuries. (Id. at 5-6).

         On January 27, 2017, three days after the dismissal order, Defendants filed an Amended Counterclaim for contribution, which sought to cure the deficiencies that the Court had identified. (DE 29). The Amended Counterclaim is different from its predecessor in the following respects: (1) rather than alluding to "negligence" generally (DE 13 at 12-13), the new version refers specifically to the negligence elements of duty, breach, causation, and damages (DE 29 at 2-3); (2) the catalogue of Bell's "breache[s]" in the Amended Counterclaim (id.) is longer than, and for the most part, distinct from, the violations and failures labeled as "negligence" in the original counterclaim (DE 13 at 12-13); and (3) the vessel's capsizing is now described as the "direct and proximate result of Bell's actions" (DE 29 at 3), where the prior version had been silent on any such connection. In the instant Motion, Bell again seeks to dismiss the Amended Counterclaim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (DE 32 at 1).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In assessing the legal sufficiency of a complaint's allegations, the Court is bound to apply the pleading standard articulated in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). That is, the complaint "must. . . contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1289 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "Dismissal is therefore permitted when on the basis of a dispositive issue of law, no construction of the factual allegations will support the cause of action." Glover v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 459 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2006) (internal quotations omitted) (citing Marshall Cty. Bd. of Educ. v. Marshall Cty. Gas Dist, 992 F.2d 1171, 1174 (11th Cir. 1993)).

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss, a court must construe plaintiffs complaint in the light most favorable to plaintiff and take the factual allegations stated therein as true. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007); Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002); Brooks v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Fla., Inc., 116 F.3d 1364, 1369 (11th Cir. 1997). However, pleadings that "are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; see also Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola Co., 578 F.3d 1252, 1260 (11th Cir. 2009) (stating that an unwarranted deduction of fact is not considered true for purpose of determining whether a claim is legally sufficient).

         Generally, a plaintiff is not required to detail all the facts upon which he bases his claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rather, Rule 8(a)(2) requires a short and plain statement of the claim that fairly notifies the defendant of both the claim and the supporting grounds. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56. However, "Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a 'showing, ' rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief." Id. at 556, n.3. Plaintiffs "obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. at 555 (citation omitted). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise [plaintiffs] right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all of the allegations in the complaint are true." Id.

         DISCUSSION

         Bell's sole argument in favor of dismissal is that Defendants have yet again failed to set forth allegations that establish the causality prong of a negligence claim. In particular, he contends that the counterclaim does not allege how his alleged breaches caused the wash or collision between the tugboat and vessel as the latter was being towed. Instead, Bell maintains, the Amended Counterclaim merely lists more types of breaches that led the vessel to drift, and then assumes that these breaches "somehow" caused Stanton's injuries. (DE 32 at 4). Defendants respond that the issue is not whether the Amended Counterclaim adequately alleges facts that could support the theory that Bell caused the wash or the collision, but whether it adequately alleges that "Stanton's injuries were proximately caused or contributed to by Bell's breaches." (DE 33 at 6) (emphasis in original).[1] Alternatively, Defendants argue that, even if the relevant inquiry centers on the cause of the vessel's capsizing, "any one of or all of the allegations, taken as true, could have" produced that result. (Id. at 7).

         Since the federal rules "do not prescribe a heightened pleading standard for maritime negligence claims", Everhart v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Civ. No. 07-23098, 2008 WL 717795, at *3 (S.D. Fla. 2008) (Martinez, J.), the sufficiency of Defendants' Amended Counterclaim is governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In order to make out a claim under that rule, it is not necessary for the plaintiff to "specifically plead every element of a cause of action." Roe v. Aware Woman Ctr. For Choice, Inc.,253 F.3d 678, 683 (11th Cir. 2001). Allegations are assessed cumulatively such that "[t]here need not be a one-to-one relationship between any single allegation and a necessary element of the cause of action." Rodriguez-Reyes v. MolinaRodriguez, 711 F.3d 49, 55 (1st Cir. 2013). At the same time, "it is still necessary that a [pleading] contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory." Roe, 253 F.3d at 683 (quoting In ...


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