Williams v. The Coleman Company, Inc. et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Robert B Propst on 2/24/2014. (AVC)
2014 Feb-24 AM 10:03
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BRANDON WILLIAMS, a minor suing
by and through his legal custodian,
guardian and next friend, BLAINE
THE COLEMAN COMPANY, INC.,
d/b/a SEVYLOR, POLYAMA PLASTIC )
INDUSTRIAL LTD and ZHONGSHAN )
PLEASURE TIME PLASTIC
This cause comes on to be considered on the plaintiff’s Motion for a Determination of
Applicable Law, and plaintiff’s Motion to Strike Defenses, both filed on December 7, 2013. The
court has concluded that it would be premature for it to rule on these motions prior to discovery,
but the court will collect some archival information to be further considered after discovery. The
court will reference some cases which will set the tone for the issues of the case and cite a
number of cases which the parties argue have significance, along with some commentary by the
court. The parties will be given an opportunity to saddle their horses and lead an “archivalry”
charge to rebut and elucidate. The parties should suggest whether there are any significant legal
issues not related to the capacity of the plaintiff to be negligent. The parties have agreed that this
is an admiralty case and that maritime law is generally involved. The court will not cite any
cases which support this agreement. The main underlying issue is how the appropriate maritime
law should be determined and applied with regard to juveniles.
The parties agree that there is no controlling case or statute which presently provides how
the capacity of the plaintiff to be guilty of negligence or contributory negligence should be
The plaintiff argues that the analysis should be framed, at least partially, by
Alabama law. He cites as follows:
Under Alabama law, contributory negligence of child under 7 does not bar
recovery. Birmingham Elec. Co. v Kirkland, 118 So. 640, 613 (1928); White
Swan Laundry Co. v Wehrhan, 79 So. 479, 481 (1918). Under Alabama law,
negligence of parent/custodian does not bar or reduce personal injury claim of the
infant. Nunn v Whitworth, 545 So. 2d 766, 767 (1989); Bentley v Lawson, 191
So.2d 372, 376 (1966); Birmingham Elec. Co. v Kirkland, 118 So. 640, 643
(1928). Under Alabama law, test for assumption of the risk by an infant is at least
as demanding as for contributory negligence. Superskate Inc v Nolen by Miller,
641 So. 2d 231 (Ala. 1994).
The parties appear to agree that admiralty does not recognize assumption of the risk as a
defense and applies comparative negligence. Socony-Vacuum Oil Co v Smith, 305 U.S. 424, 429
(1939); Pope & Talbot v Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-09 (1953); The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1, 14
(1890). They further agree that general admiralty law applies. See East River S.S. Co. v
Transamerica Delaval, 476 U.S. 858, 864 (1986) (“With admiralty jurisdiction comes the
application of substantive admiralty law. Absent a relevant statute, the general maritime law, as
developed by the judiciary applies.”) (citations omitted). And, that comparative negligence
always applies over contributory negligence. See Pope & Talbot v Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-09
(1953) (“The harsh rule of the common law under which contributory negligence wholly barred
an injured person from recovery is completely incompatible with modern admiralty policy and
practice. Exercising its traditional discretion, admiralty has developed and now follows its own
fairer and more flexible rule which allows such consideration of contributory negligence in
mitigation of damages as justice requires.”); The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1, 14 (1890).
The plaintiff further argues that:
The standard of care for infants/juveniles is a peculiarly local interest.
Portland Cement Co. v. City of Detroit, Mich., 362 U.S. 440 (1960). Where there is no
admiralty rule and one is not really needed, the court may apply state law. See Wilburn Boat Co.
v. Fireman’s Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955); Kossick v United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961).
State law, however, cannot interfere with the elements of the substantive cause of action itself.
E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transam. Delvael, Inc., 476 U.S. 858 (1986).
There is a one-way, pro-plaintiff “ratchet,” allowing state law to apply when it is
favorable to the plaintiff. See Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961); Sun Ship, Inc. v.
Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715 (1980); Yamaha Motor Corp,,U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199
“The general maritime law” is simply the body of judge-made and non-statutory
admiralty law. See Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970).
The defendants argue that:
In admiralty actions, federal admiralty law governs. E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transam.
Delvael, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 864 (1986).
Maritime law must not (1) be contrary to the "essential purpose" of an act of Congress;
"material[ly] prejudice[ial]" to a "characteristic feature" of general maritime law; or disruptive
to the "proper harmony and uniformity" of general maritime law or (2) deprive a party of a
"substantial right" provided by admiralty law. See S. Pac. Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 216
(1917), superseded by statute,1 Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, ch.
Jensen actually states:
Equally well established is the rule that state statutes may not contravene an applicable act of Congress
509, 44 Stat. 1424 (1927) (codified as amended at, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq.); Garrett v. MooreMcCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239 (1942); Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406 (1953).
Comparative fault is a characteristic feature of admiralty law and a substantial right. See
United States v. Reliable Transfer Co, Inc., 421 U.S. 397 (1975); Pope & Talbot, 346 U.S. at
408-09 (1953); Lewis v. Timco, Inc., 716 F.2d 1425, 1428 (5th Cir. 1983).
This case is not of peculiarly local concern and Huron is inapplicable. Huron Portland
Cement v. Detroit, 362 U.S. 440 (1960).
An admiralty rule does exist for the case here (comparative negligence). See Wilburn
Boat Co. v. Fireman's Insurance Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955).
The court has repeatedly emphasized the need for uniformity. See Am. Dredging Co. v.
Miller, 510 U.S. 443 (1994); Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207 (1986); Kossick
v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961). Yamaha does not provide that state interests must
always trump competing admiralty principles. See In re Amtrak Sunset Ltd. Train Crash in
Bayou Canot, Ala. On Sept. 22, 1993, 121 F.3d 1415, 1424-25 (11th. Cir. 1997). Courts have
declined to apply a parental immunity doctrine and interspousal immunity. See Szollosy v. Hyatt
Com., 396 F. Sup. 2d 147 (D. Conn. 2005); Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615 (4th Cir. 1981).2
Assumption of the risk is not a defense in admiralty. See Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. v. Smith, 305
U.S. 424 (1939); Nat'l Marine Serv., Inc. v. Petroleum Serv. Corp., 736 F.2d 272 (5th Cir. 1984).
or affect the general maritime law beyond certain limits. … And plainly, we think, no such legislation
is valid if it contravenes the essential purpose expressed by an act of Congress, or works material
prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, or interferes with the proper
harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations. This limitation, at the
least, is essential to the effective operation of the fundamental purposes for which such law was
incorporated into our national laws by the Constitution itself.
244 U.S. 205, 216 (1917) (emphasis added). Jensen suggests that if state law would contravene uniformity (i.e. having
multiple standards for infants), created admiralty law must apply. The defendants do not argue that a rule saying infants
under 7 cannot be negligent would contravene an admiralty purpose. Rather, they say applying different rules of states
would contravene an admiralty purpose (uniformity). The defendants have not argued against the creation of such rules.
They have only argued the court should not apply Alabama law.
Such immunity does not involved capacity.
Plaintiff’s guardian’s negligence may be asserted as related to foreseeability.
Williams v. BIC Corp., 771 So.2d 441 (Ala. 2000).
The court further notes that:
Striking an affirmative defense is proper only if the defense is “insufficient as a matter of
law.” Microsoft Corp. v. Jesse's Computers & Repair, Inc., 211 F.R.D. 681, 683 (M.D. Fla.
2002); Fed. R. Civ. P. 12.
When a case triggers the court’s admiralty jurisdiction, it applies substantive maritime
law; however, state law may sometimes still be applicable. See Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great
Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 534 (1995); Misener Marine Const., Inc. v. Norfolk
Dredging Co., 594 F.3d 832, 837-38 (11th Cir. 2010); Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun,
516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996); Misener Marine Const., Inc. v. Norfolk Dredging Co., 594 F.3d 832,
839 n. 16 (11th Cir. 2010).
The assumption of the risk defense is not a bar to recovery in admiralty. See Edward
Leasing Corp. v. Uhlig & Associates, Inc., 785 F.2d 877, 886 (11th Cir. 1986).
Comparative negligence applies to maritime torts. See Pope & Talbot v. Hawn, 346 U.S.
406, 408-09 (1953).
Alabama law bars the negligence of infants under seven and also bars the imputing to
them the negligence of their guardians. See Jones v. Strickland, 77 So. 562, 565 (Ala. 1917);
Proctor v. United States, 443 F. Supp. 133, 135 (N.D. Ala. 1977); Nunn v. Whitworth By &
Through Whitworth, 545 So. 2d 766, 767 (Ala. 1989).
This court does not adopt a state rule as such. The Jensen test (list of three factors) have
not been applied consistently. Compare Am. Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443, 447 (1994)
(specifically citing the Jensen factors) with Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S.
199 (1996) (not citing the Jensen factors); see also Misener Marine Const., Inc. v. Norfolk
Dredging Co., 594 F.3d 832, 839 n. 16 (11th Cir. 2010) (“The application of this rule has not
been completely clear and consistent.”); In re Antill Pipeline Const. Co., Inc., 866 F. Supp. 2d
563, 568 (E.D. La. 2011). As stated, this court does not apply state law here.
Courts may apply state laws to specific legal questions where admiralty law is silent, as
long as it does not frustrate the uniformity of admiralty law. Coastal Fuels Mktg., Inc. v. Florida
Exp. Shipping Co., Inc., 207 F.3d 1247, 1251 (11th Cir. 2000). Uniformity is a fundamental
feature of admiralty law. See Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 401 (1970);
In re Amtrak Sunset Ltd. Train Crash in Bayou Canot, Ala. on Sept. 22, 1993, 121 F.3d 1421,
1425 (11th Cir. 1997); State Trading Corp. of India, Ltd. v. Assuranceforeningen Skuld, 921
F.2d 409, 414 (2d Cir. 1990).
Generally, there is nothing local about maritime torts or the substantive state law
regulating them. See Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 631
(1959) (holding state’s invitee/licensee distinction inapposite in admiralty); Calhoun, 216 F.3d at
351 (finding state law barring comparative negligence as defense in products liability action
inapplicable); Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615, 621 (4th Cir. 1981) (refusing to incorporate
interspousal immunity in tort actions); In re Antill Pipeline Const. Co., Inc., 866 F. Supp. 2d
563, 569-70 (E.D. La. 2011) (declining to apply state law barring recovery to intoxicated,
negligent boat operators); Szollosy v. Hyatt Corp., 396 F. Supp. 2d 147, 156 (D. Conn. 2005)
(determining state parental immunity law was inapplicable).
Courts have applied admiralty laws to cases involving juvenile plaintiffs. See, e.g.,
Gibbs ex rel. Gibbs v. Carnival Cruise Lines, 314 F.3d 125 (3d Cir. 2002) (.
Wilburn boat is distinguishable from the present facts.
See Wilburn Boat Co. v.
Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310, 321 (1955); Byrd v. Byrd, 657 F.2d 615, 619 (4th Cir.
1981); Pope & Talbot v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-09 (1953).
Admiralty’s comparative fault principles would allow the defendants to allege fault on
the behalf of other parties, including plaintiff’s parents or custodian. See Phillips Petroleum Co.
v. Stokes Oil Co., Inc., 863 F.2d 1250, 1255 (6th Cir. 1988); United States v. Reliable Transfer
Co., Inc., 421 U.S. 397, 411 (1975).
Proximate cause requirement (including superseding cause doctrine) is applicable in
admiralty. See Exxon Co., U.S.A. v. Sofec, Inc., 517 U.S. 830, 836 (1996).
Court’s Further Comments
None of which has been stated above and which follows is presently binding. Only
inclinations of the court, which may be later disregarded, are stated.
The defendants stress that any law which this court determines to be appropriate
maritime law must be uniform. This court is inclined to hold that some definitive statement of
an age below which a juvenile lacks capacity for negligence, contributory negligence, etc. would
create more uniformity than defendants’ suggestion that all such determinations should be
governed by a fact finder who decides what a reasonable person of that age would do under the
same circumstances. Such decisions could lead, as defendants have agreed, to findings of a jury
or judge by at least, partial whim. The defendants have argued that such findings could be made
as to a person two years (maybe one year?) old and up. This court suggests that a law which
holds that juveniles less than seven years of age lack capacity would be more uniform than a
blank check. This suggestion is based on logic rather than state law. The test of what a
reasonable person of the same age would do would be more appropriate as to children of seven
and up. The two areas of law would not be inconsistent. The defendants have acknowledged
that age is a relevant factor.
Maritime law must be uniform “in its international and interstate relations.” Jensen, 244
U.S. at 216. As stated, setting an age cap for capacity is more uniform than the lack of such a
cap. There is no disruption of the purposes of maritime law when considered in the light of
special safety needs when children are in boats, on docks, etc.
The court also disagrees with defendants’ argument that the comparative negligence rule
somehow impacts any judgment to which the plaintiff may be entitled, regardless of whether the
plaintiff has the capacity to be negligent or is otherwise found not to be negligent.
Neither this court nor the parties have significantly addressed what the situation will be if
a jury or a judge were to conclude that the plaintiff was not injured as the result of any fault by
any defendant. Would that moot the main issue in this case? On the other hand would the
comparative negligence rule reduce any judgment granted to the plaintiff if he is not at fault in
any way? Are the defendants arguing that they can reduce a judgment of the plaintiff against
them by having the jury determine the proportionate damages of a non-party? Please quote from
controlling cases. Keep it brief and pointed. Any objection must be filed within 10 days.
Further, the parties should confer and recommend a date to end discovery.
This the 24th day of February 2014.
ROBERT B. PROPST
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?