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Maine Maritime Academy v. Fitch

United States District Court, D. Maine

February 15, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Third-Party Defendant.


          Nancy Torresen United States District Judge

         This dispute arises out of injuries suffered by Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff Janis Fitch while working aboard the Training Ship STATE OF MAINE (the “Training Ship”). Before me is Plaintiff Maine Maritime Academy's (“MMA”) motion to dismiss Fitch's Amended Counterclaim (ECF No. 58). For the reasons that follow, I DENY MMA's motion.


         MMA filed a complaint seeking a declaration, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201, that it is not obligated to pay “maintenance and cure”[1] to Fitch, and, alternatively, a declaration that Sodexo[2] is obligated to indemnify MMA for any liability for Fitch's injury. Fitch answered MMA's complaint, and filed a counterclaim against MMA and a crossclaim against Sodexo for Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure. (ECF No. 14.) Sodexo filed a crossclaim against MMA. (ECF No. 18.) Fitch then amended her crossclaim and counterclaim to add a third-party claim against the United States. (ECF No. 51.) MMA filed the instant motion to dismiss Fitch's counterclaim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or, alternatively, for failure to state a claim, as well as for judgment on the pleadings. (ECF No. 58.) Both Fitch and the United States filed a response in opposition to MMA's motion. (ECF Nos. 63, 75.) MMA filed a consolidated reply. (ECF No. 79.)

         On September 4, 2018, I held a telephone conference of parties. The parties agreed that it made sense to address first the issue of whether I have subject matter jurisdiction over Fitch's counterclaims against MMA.[3] I allowed the parties to conduct limited additional discovery and submit supplemental briefing on the jurisdictional issue. (ECF Nos. 84, 86, 87, 88.)[4]


         Congress has declared its objective to have a robust and capable merchant marine to meet the nation's domestic and foreign commerce needs and to serve as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency. 46 U.S.C. § 50101(a). It has further declared that: “[i]t is the policy of the United States to encourage and aid the development and maintenance of a merchant marine [to] satisfy[] [those objectives].” 46 U.S.C. § 50101(b). In order to ensure that there are adequate human resources to achieve its goals, Congress has enacted legislation focused on the education and training of merchant mariners.

It is the policy of the United States that merchant marine vessels of the United States should be operated by highly trained and efficient citizens of the United States and that the United States Navy and the merchant marine of the United States should work closely together to promote the maximum integration of the total seapower forces of the United States.

46 U.S.C. § 51101. To that end, the Secretary of Transportation maintains the United States Merchant Marine Academy and “cooperate[s] with and assist[s] State maritime academies in providing instruction to individuals to prepare them for service in the merchant marine of the United States.” 46 U.S.C. §§ 51301, 51501(a).

         In support of state maritime academies, the Maritime Administration (“MARAD”), an agency within the Department of Transportation, provides direct payments, tuition assistance, and assistance with instruction and course development. 46 U.S.C. §§ 51501-51511. In addition, the Secretary of Transportation is authorized to provide vessels to state maritime academies for use as training ships and to provide limited fuel assistance. 46 U.S.C. § 51504. Training ships provided by MARAD remain the property of the United States Government. 46 U.S.C. § 51504.

         To qualify for a training vessel, state maritime academies must provide specific courses, meet standards set in consultation with the Secretary of the Transportation, and require students in a merchant marine officer preparation program to pass various licensing tests. 46 U.S.C. § 51506(a). One regulation governing curriculum requires that the “minimum period of training shall be three (3) years, ” and further states that “[f]or the Cadets and Midshipmen[5] . . . at least six (6) months of the total time must be aboard a Training Ship in cruise status.” 46 C.F.R. § 310.3(c)(1).

         MMA is a one of six federally recognized state maritime academies, and it qualifies for a training vessel. Memorandum of Agreement Between the United States of America and Maine Maritime Academy 1 (“MoA”) (ECF No. 63-1); O'Donnell Dep. 11 (ECF No. 84-1). MMA offers Bachelor of Science degrees in marine transportation, marine systems engineering, marine engineering technology, marine engineering operations, power engineering, vessel operations and technology, international business and logistics, oceanography and ocean studies. Approximately two-thirds of the student body at MMA are cadets enrolled in a merchant marine officer preparation program and working to obtain merchant seamen licenses that are issued by the United States Coast Guard. The remaining students are not cadets but they may be pursuing careers that support the merchant marine.[6]

         MMA offers cadets opportunities to complete the required six months of training at sea. One of the ways cadets can accrue the required sea-time training is by participating in MMA's annual summer training cruises aboard the Training Ship. MMA charges students between $1, 800 - $7, 500 (depending on the student's major) to participate in a summer cruise. (last visited Feb. 15, 2019).[7] Although the Training Ship largely supports programs for cadets, non-cadets use the Training Ship from time to time to support their own studies. This incidental use is governed by the MoA, which provides that “[a]ny [ancillary] use of the Vessel shall not compete with or impede training” and that any ancillary use during a training cruise must be submitted to MARAD for approval. MoA 13.

         This case arises from injuries sustained by Fitch during a summer cruise. Fitch, the lead cook aboard the Training Ship, contends that she was seriously injured in July of 2016, when she “slipped, fell and slid across the deck . . . shattering her left tibia and left fibula” while preparing breakfast in the galley. First Amend. Compl. (“FAC”) ¶ 29 (ECF No. 51). Fitch alleges that she slipped because an inadequate drainage system was unable to dispose of greasy, soapy wash water from the previous night's cleaning. FAC ¶¶ 30-31.


         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, ” restricted to hear matters “authorized by Constitution and statute.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) permits a party to move to dismiss a complaint on the grounds that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. MMA contends that Fitch lacks jurisdiction to pursue a counterclaim against it because, by statute, Fitch's exclusive remedy lies against the United States. A district court may “resolv[e] . . . factual disputes between the parties” “in order to determine its own jurisdiction.” Valentin v. Hosp. Bella Vista, 254 F.3d 358, 363 (1st Cir. 2001).


         I. The Suits in Admiralty Act

         The issue before me arises under the Suits in Admiralty Act (the “SIAA”). The SIAA, which waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain cases in admiralty, provides, in pertinent part: “in a case in which, if a vessel were privately owned or operated . . . a civil action in admiralty could be maintained, a civil action in admiralty in personam may be brought against the United States.” 46 U.S.C. § 30903. Courts have determined that the SIAA authorizes suit against the United States in three situations:

first where an injury is caused by a vessel owned by the United States; . . . second, where an injury is caused by a vessel operated by the United States; and finally, in cases where an injury is caused by a vessel operated for the United States. The language of the statute is disjunctive; therefore the fulfillment of any one of the above three conditions will satisfy the requirements of the Act.

Bowman v. Pan American World Services, Inc., 704 F.Supp. 695, 696 (E.D. La. 1989).

         At issue in this case is the SIAA's “exclusivity provision, ” which provides that a plaintiff who can sue the United States under the SIAA cannot also bring an “action arising out of the same subject matter against the officer, employee, or agent of the United States.” 46 U.S.C. § 30904.

         II. The Arguments Advanced

         The central question before me is whether MMA is an agent of the United States for purposes of the SIAA's exclusivity provision. MMA argues that it is an agent of the United States, as a matter of law, because the United States owns the Training Ship. It further contends that it qualifies as an agent because the United States “retains overall direction and control of the vessel” for the purpose of training officers in the merchant marine of the United States. Mot. to Dismiss 6-8; MMA's Reply 8-10 (ECF No. 79).

         The United States and Fitch counter that government ownership of the Training Ship is not enough, in and of itself, to make MMA an agent as a matter of law. They further contend that MMA is not an agent of the United States because: (1) MARAD did not consent for MMA to act as its agent; (2) MARAD did not exercise sufficient control over MMA's operation of the Training Ship, and (3) MMA uses the ...

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