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Reliable Marine Towing and Salvage LLC v. Thomas

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

December 12, 2017

RELIABLE MARINE TOWING AND SALVAGE LLC, successor in interest to Cheryl Smith d/b/a Reliable Marine Salvage & Towing, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN THOMAS and STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Defendants; and RELIABLE MARINE TOWING AND SALVAGE LLC, successor in interest to Cheryl Smith d/b/a Reliable Marine Salvage & Towing, as ASSIGNEE OF JOHN THOMAS, Cross-Plaintiff,
v.
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Cross-Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          SHERI POLSTER CHAPPELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant State Farm Fire and Casualty Company's Motion to Dismiss Count II for Failure to State a Claim (Doc. 17) filed on September 29, 2017. Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition (Doc. 25) on October 23, 2017. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is denied.

         BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of Plaintiff Reliable Marine Towing and Salvage LLC's (Plaintiff or Reliable) salvage of a vessel, owned by Defendant John Thomas, sunken off the Coast of North Captiva Island. Plaintiff alleges that the incident occurred on or about August 1, 2015, when Thomas verbally requested assistance from Reliable, informing Reliable that the vessel was covered by State Farm Boat Insurance (the “Policy”). (Doc. 1, ¶ 7). Thomas signed a contract with Plaintiff for the salvage services. (Id. at ¶ 12; Doc. 1-1). The salvage took approximately two hours and forty-eight minutes, after which the vessel was taken by Thomas for repairs. (Id. at ¶ 8). The un-paid salvage services total $3, 109.84. (Id. at ¶ 12).

         Plaintiff filed a two-count Complaint for salvage against Thomas (Count I), and for breach of contract against State Farm (Count II) due to State Farm's material breach of its duty to Reliable as a third-party beneficiary on the vessel insurance policy. (Doc. 1). After service of the Summons and Complaint, Thomas failed to respond, instead signing a Consent Judgment with Reliable, in which Thomas assigned all his rights to Reliable regarding any claims he has or may have against State Farm. (Doc. 29). Thereafter, Reliable, as Assignee of John Thomas, filed a Cross-Complaint against State Farm for breach of contract (Count I) and declaratory judgment (Count II). (Doc. 38). State Farm has yet to respond to the Cross-Complaint.

         State Farm now moves to dismiss Count II for failure to state a claim, arguing there is no basis in federal maritime law or Florida law for a salvor such as Reliable to bring a claim directly against the vessel's insurer. Specifically, State Farm points to a provision of the Policy (Doc. 17-1) and argues that Reliable is not a third-party beneficiary of the Policy issued to Thomas, and cannot directly seek proceeds under the Policy. Reliable responds that other provisions of the Policy specifically provide for recovery against the insurer in situations such as this.

         DISCUSSION

         Under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This obligation “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). In addition, to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the factual allegations must be “plausible” and “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555; see also Edwards v. Prime Inc., 602 F.3d 1276, 1291 (11th Cir. 2010). Like its counterpart above, Rule 12(b)(6) requires more than “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me” accusations. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citations omitted).

         In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court must accept all factual allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam). But, “[l]egal conclusions without adequate factual support are entitled to no assumption of truth.” Mamani v. Berzain, 654 F.3d 1148, 1153 (11th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “Factual allegations that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability [also] fall short of being facially plausible.” Chaparro v. Carnival Corp., 693 F.3d 1333, 1337 (11th Cir. 2012) (internal citations omitted). The Court engages in a two-step approach: “When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         To state a valid claim for breach of a third-party beneficiary contract, a plaintiff is required to plead and prove: (1) the existence of a contract to which it was not a party; (2) an intent, either expressed by the parties or in the provisions of the contract, that the contract primarily and directly benefits the plaintiff; (3) breach of that contract; and (4) damages resulting from the breach. Jenne v. Church & Tower, Inc., 814 So.2d 522, 524 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002); Jacobson v. Heritage Quality Constr. Co., 604 So.2d 17 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992). see also Blu-J, Inc. v. Kemper C.P.A. Group, 916 F.2d 637, 640 (11th Cir.1990) (“[I]t must be shown that the intent and purpose of the contracting parties was to confer a direct and substantial benefit upon the third party.” (quotation omitted)). Persons who merely receive an “incidental or consequential benefit from the contract” cannot be third party beneficiaries. Esposito v. True Color Enters. Const., Inc., 45 So.3d 554, 555 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010).

         State Farm takes issue with the second element, i.e. the intent of the contracting parties, pointing to the following provision of the Policy[2]:

SECTION 1 - CONDITIONS
. . .
11. No Benefit to Bailee. We will not recognize an assignment or grant coverage for the benefit of a person or organization holding, storing or transporting property for a fee. This applies ...

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