United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division
IN RE WILLIAM BOWMAN, as titled owner of and for a 37' 2012 Boston Whaler, hull identification number BWCE0946B212 her engines, tackle, and appurtenances, for exoneration from or limitation of liability, Petitioner,
OPINION AND ORDER
E. STEELE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter comes before the Court on review of claimant Benjamin
Bair's Motion to Dismiss Petition for Exoneration from or
Limitation of Liability for Lack of Subject Matter
Jurisdiction (Doc. #17) filed on March 30, 2018. Petitioner
filed a Response in Opposition (Doc. #35) on June 12, 2018,
and claimant filed a Reply (Doc. #41) on July 6, 2018.
William Bowman (“Bowman”) initiated this action
by filing a Petition for Exoneration or Limitation of
Liability pursuant to the Limitation Act, 46 U.S.C. §
30501 et seq. (the “Act”), and
Supplemental Rule F of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
(Doc. #1.) The Petition alleges facts as follows: at all
times relevant, petitioner was the owner of the 37'
Boston Whaler, hull identification number BWCE0946B212 (the
“vessel”). (Id., ¶¶ 6, 12.) On
or about August 3, 2017, petitioner's vessel collided
around the mouth of the Calloosahatchee River with another
vessel operated by claimant Benjamin Bair
(“Bair”), with Joseph Lugo on board as a
passenger. (Id., ¶ 9.) The vessel was in
navigable waters and was physically damaged, and petitioner
was onboard the vessel at the time. (Id.,
¶¶ 10-11, 13.) Petitioner does not allege whether
he was alone on his vessel, or that he himself was the
operator of the vessel. Petitioner alleges that there was no
negligence in his part that caused or contributed to any
alleged injury or loss or damage sustained by Benjamin Bair
and Joseph Lugo. (Id., ¶ 20.)
seeks exoneration from liability and Count II seeks, in the
alternative, limitation of liability to the value of
petitioner's vessel. (Id., ¶¶ 16-27.)
In support, petitioner alleges that the vessel was seaworthy
at all relevant times and in all respects. (Id.,
¶¶ 17-18.) Petitioner states that the value of the
vessel at the time was no more than $170, 000. (Id.,
Motion, Claimant avers that petitioner negligently entrusted
and negligently supervised his son, Adam Bowman, who was
allegedly operating the vessel at the time of the collision.
(Doc. #15, ¶ 9.) These claims were formally presented in
Bair's Claim filed with the Court alleging negligent
entrustment and negligent supervision. (Doc. #15.) Bair is
now the only claimant in this matter. (Doc. #33.) A Default
Judgment (Doc. #34) was issued as to all claimants that
failed to file a claim by the Court's deadline.
argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction
because success on his negligent entrustment and negligent
supervision claims inherently require proving privity or
knowledge, and petitioner cannot avail himself of the
Act's protection. A facial challenge to subject matter
jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) is premised on the
allegations in the complaint, which the district court
assumes to be true. Morrison v. Amway Corp., 323
F.3d 920, 924 n.5 (11th Cir. 2003).
Limitation of Liability Act limits a vessel owner's
liability for any damages arising from a maritime accident to
the value of the vessel and its freight, provided that the
accident occurred without such owner's “privity or
knowledge.” 46 U.S.C. § 30505. This privity or
knowledge generally refers to “the vessel owner's
personal participation in, or actual knowledge of, the
specific acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness
which caused or contributed to the accident.”
Suzuki of Orange Park, Inc. v. Shubert, 86 F.3d
1060, 1064 (11th Cir. 1996). This definition has expanded to
include constructive knowledge, that is, “what the
vessel owner could have discovered through reasonable
inquiry.” Id. (citing cases).
relies on the Seventh Circuit decision of Joyce v.
Joyce, 975 F.2d 379 (7th Cir. 1992), also cited by the
Eleventh Circuit in Suzuki of Orange Park, Inc. v.
Shubert, 86 F.3d 1060, 1064 (11th Cir. 1996). (Doc. #41,
p. 2.) Under Joyce, the Court noted that “if a
shipowner knows enough to be liable for negligent
entrustment, he knows too much to be eligible for limited
liability under the Act.” Joyce v. Joyce, 975
F.2d 379, 385 (7th Cir. 1992). “[T]he essential thrust
of the tort of negligent entrustment is that a shipowner can
be held liable for negligent entrustment only if he knows or
has reason to know that the person being entrusted is
incapable of operating the vessel safely.” Id.
case is easily distinguishable from Joyce because
the Complaint in that case alleged exactly who was negligent
in operating the vessel, and who as owner was negligent in
entrusting the boat to the operator. Here, at this stage of
the proceedings, the Court has no facts on the face of the
Petition that reflect that petitioner concedes privity or
knowledge, “or where it is otherwise impossible under
any set of circumstances for the vessel owner to demonstrate
the absence of privity or knowledge”, Suzuki,
86 F.3d at 1064, because there are no allegations as to the
operator of his vessel at all.
Eleventh Circuit has also cautioned against summarily
deciding whether it is impossible under any set of
circumstances for a vessel owner to demonstrate the lack of
privity or knowledge on a motion to dismiss. See M/V
Sunshine, II v. Beavin, 808 F.2d 762, 765 (11th Cir.
1987). Because the Court cannot unequivocally determine
petitioner's privity or knowledge of any specific acts of
negligence on the face of the Petition before determining
liability, the motion must be denied.