One of the recurring issues in handling maritime wrongful death and personal injury claims is determining what information is sufficient to start the vessel owner’s six-month deadline to file a complaint seeking exoneration or limitation of liability under the Shipowners’ Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30501 et seq. from that claim. It is clear that a written demand for payment/settlement before suit is filed which exceeds the value of the vessel will start the running of the six-month period. Additionally, when the petition alleges recovery of damages in excess of the value of the vessel, the vessel owner’s receipt of that petition will start the clock. However, it is less certain when the written notice of the claim is via service of a state court petition in which the plaintiff has not alleged a specific damages amount, as is generally the case in Louisiana and Texas state courts, but thereafter makes an initial settlement demand that exceeds the vessel’s value.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit, in In re Eckstein Marine Service L.L.C., No. 10 – 20600 (Feb. 22, 2012), recently examined this issue. Jackson, a Jones Act seaman employed by Eckstein, filed suit in Texas state court. Eight months after it was served with Jackson’s state court suit, Eckstein filed a limitation proceeding in Texas federal court. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the federal court’s judgment dismissing Eckstein’s limitation proceeding for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding that the limitation proceeding had been filed too late. Although Jackson’s state court petition was silent on the quantum of damages, the Fifth Circuit concluded that pleading revealed a reasonable possibility that Jackson’s claim would exceed the value of Eckstein’s vessel, and therefore the clock started running for Eckstein to file a limitation suit upon its receipt of service of the state court petition.
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