Judge Doumar issued an interesting opinion In Re Vulcan Construction Materials, LLC, As Owner of the Tug Jeanie Clay, Case No. 2:18-cv-00668. The case came before the Court as a maritime Limitation of Liability Act case in which a vessel owner petitions the Court to limit its liability for any claims arising during a vessel’s voyage to the value of the vessel at the conclusion of the voyage. The Act, adopted in 1851, was a measure to protect shipowners from unlimited liability and to encourage the competitiveness of the American shipping industry. The Act has been subject to significant criticism as anachronistic, but that is a topic for another day.
Today, we focus on the issue that Judge Doumar decided, which was whether the notice that an injured worker provided was sufficient to put the shipowner on notice of a potential claim. Such notice is required to trigger the start of a six-month clock on filing a Petition under the Act.
In this case, the style and appearance of the notice is excepted on page 6 of the Opinion. The Opinion notes that the notice “does not contain letterhead indicating it was sent from a law firm (or any legitimate enterprise, for that matter).” The Opinion also observes that there was no subject line to the letter, and that it only lists a single signer of the letter, and thus “no indication of who ‘we’ is” when the letter states “we represent.” The Court also observes that the only indications that the signatory was a lawyer was the use of the notation “VSB No.” (presumably Virginia State Bar Number) and the title “Esq.”
Considering the totality of the circumstances, Judge Doumar concluded that “the style and appearance of the note fail to alert a recipient to a potential claim, while the substance similarly fails to ‘make clear that claimant intends to seek damages from’ Vulcan.” This was despite the fact that the letter was titled “Notice of Claim” and that it stated that “A claim may be filed.”
The July 16, 2019, Order is postured as a Motion for Reconsideration, but the Court concluded that there was no new evidence on the issue nor any clear error in the Court’s previous ruling. You can read the opinion here.
Interestingly, within two weeks of the Opinion, a Consent to Jurisdiction was filed and the case was reassigned to a Magistrate Judge.