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Royal Ins Co. v. M/V MSC Dymphna

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ROYAL INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA AS SUBROGEE OF WARNER LAMBERT COMPANY,

Plaintiff,

v.

M/V MSC DYMPHNA, HER ENGINES, BOILERS, ETC. MEDITERRANEAN SHIPPING COMPANY

S.A., Cestus Paninternational, Inc. Chargres Enterprises Inc ., Defendants.

June 16, 2004.

Nicoletti Hornig Campise & Sweeney, New York, NY, James F. Campise, David Y. Loh, for Plaintiff.

De Orchis, Walker & Corsa, LLP, New York, NY, Vincent M. De Orchis, John A. Orzel, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM ORDER

LEISURE, J.

On February 26, 2004, this Court issued an opinion and order that, among other things, denied plaintiff’s cross-motion for summary judgment. Royal Ins. Co. v. M/V MSC Dymphna, 2004 WL 369268. The Court found that COGSA’s $500 per package limitation applies in this case, but that a genuine issue of material fact remains as to what constituted a “package” in the agreement between the parties. Plaintiff now moves the Court for certification of appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3) and (b). Plaintiff seeks appellate review of the Court’s determination that the bill of lading in this case does not unambiguously define “cartons” as the applicable COGSA package. Defendants oppose plaintiff’s motion. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies plaintiff’s motion.

Discussion

The Court presumes familiarity with its prior opinion and order in this case.

“It is a basic tenet of federal law to delay appellate review until a final judgment has been entered.” Koehler v. Bank of Bermuda Ltd., 101 F.3d 863, 865 (2d Cir.1996). “Rare exceptions” to this final judgment rule are set forth in, among other things, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3) and (b), which allow for interlocutory appeals in limited circumstances. See id. The Court reviews the applicability of these sections in turn.

I. 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3)

Section 1292(a)(3) of title 28 of the United States Code provides that “the courts of appeals shall have jurisdiction of appeals from … [I]nterlocutory decrees of such district courts or the judges thereof determining the rights and liabilities of the parties to admiralty cases.” The parties now dispute whether the Court’s summary judgment ruling–that a genuine issue of fact remains in dispute about what unit constitutes the COGSA “package”–determined “the rights and liabilities” of the parties. A plain reading of the statute favors neither party’s interpretation over the other’s. On the one hand, the Court’s ruling constitutes a determination about defendants’ liability, namely, that it is limited to $500 per package and that the trier of fact must decide what unit constitutes the applicable package. On the other hand, the Court’s ruling does not constitute a determination about defendants’ liability, as the Court did not address on summary judgment whether defendants are at fault for plaintiff’s loss. The statutory language of 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3) could support either interpretation, depending on whether the statute properly requires a narrow or expansive construction. See Wright, Miller & Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 3927 (1996).

Courts considering the scope of 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3) under similar circumstances have reached divergent conclusions. In Bucher-Guyer AG v. M/V Incortrans Spirit, 868 F.2d 734, 735 (5th Cir.1989), for example, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “[t]he decision whether the $500 COGSA limitation on damages applies in this case is not a decision determining the rights and liabilities of the parties. In fact, if we were to hold that the $500 limit applies, we would still have to remand this case for a decision on whether the defendants were liable.” See also, e.g., Wingerter v. Chester Quarry Co., 185 F.3d 657, 669-71 (7th Cir.1998) (declining to review lower court decision denying plaintiff’s request for a jury trial because “legislative intent, general reluctance to erode the final judgment rule, and the historical origin of the statute,” all support a narrow construction of § 1292(a)(3)); Evergreen Intern. (USA) Corp. v. Standard Warehouse, 33 F.3d 420, 424 (4th Cir.1994) (noting the “universal” understanding of the statute’s limited applicability and denying appellate review because “[s]ection 1292(a)(3) was not intended to clutter the federal docket with interlocutory odds and ends”). By contrast, in Wallis v. Princess Cruises, Inc., 306 F.3d 827, 833-834 (9th Cir.2002), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that it had “jurisdiction over an interlocutory appeal under § 1292(a)(3) where … only the validity and applicability of a provision limiting liability has been determined.” The Wallis court reasoned that, “if the district court has held that a plaintiff can recover no more than $500 if actual liability is established, an economically rational plaintiff will not ordinarily pursue the case to judgment, and the correctness of the district court’s determination of applicability of the liability limitation will never be reviewed.” Id. The Wallis court read § 1292(a)(3) to account for this “practical problem posed by limitations on liability.” Id.

While the Second Circuit appears not yet to have addressed the specific issue of whether rulings on the limitation of liability under COGSA are appealable interlocutory orders, see Stolt Tank Containers, Inc. v. Evergreen Marine Corp., 962 F.2d 276, 278-279 (2d Cir.1992), the Court has ruled that § 1292(a)(3) should be construed narrowly. In Tradax Ltd. v. M.V. Holendrecht, the Court held that § 1292(a)(3) “has been narrowly construed, and basically limited to cases where there has been a determination of liability but not yet a computation of damages.” 550 F.2d 1337, 1340-42 (2d Cir.1977) (citations omitted); see Blue Water Yacht Club Assoc. v. New Hampshire Ins. Co., 355 F.3d 139, 141 (2d Cir.2004) (“[W]e have construed § 1292(a)(3) to mean that we have jurisdiction when the court below, as is customary in admiralty, has entered an interlocutory decree deciding the merits of the controversy between the parties, but has left unsettled the question of damages or other details.”).

Here, the Court declines to grant plaintiff’s motion for certification pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3). The Court reads § 1292(a)(3) narrowly, which consists with the “basic tenet of federal law to delay appellate review until a final judgment has been entered,” with the historical analysis of the statute set forth by courts in other circuits, and with Second Circuit law. The Court’s ruling on summary judgment did not “determine the rights and liabilities” of the parties within the meaning of the statute. Rather, the Court simply denied summary judgment to plaintiff on the package issue, and held that the issue involves factual disputes that must be resolved by the trier of fact. Plaintiff in this case, therefore, is not similarly situated to the plaintiff in Wallis, and does not suffer practical problems that access to appellate review alone can solve.

Plaintiff contends that the only defense conceivably available to defendants is that liability is limited to $500 per pallet in this case. Plaintiff argues that defendants have taken no active steps to meet their burden of proving their only available affirmative defense to liability, the heavy weather defense. The Court, however, will not speculate about what defenses may or may not remain available to defendants at this stage, or whether such defenses are likely to be proved. As plaintiff seeks an interlocutory appeal, it is sufficient to note at this time that defendants have not admitted liability, and that, at the very least, a genuine issue of material fact remains in dispute as to what constitutes the COGSA package. Moreover, unlike the defendants in Stolt Tank, the defendants here have not stipulated to remove from the case all issues except whether the liability limitations apply. 962 F.2d at 277. The Court therefore finds that its summary judgment ruling did not determine the rights and liabilities of the parties within the meaning of § 1292(a)(3), and declines to grant plaintiff’s motion on that ground.

II. 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b)

Section 1292(b) of title 28 of the United States Code provides that when a district judge is “of the opinion that [the district court’s] order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation, he shall so state in writing in such order.” Plaintiff notes that the Court, in its summary judgment decision, observed the “prolix litigation” in this “murky area of admiralty law,” and argues that certifying for appeal the issue of the COGSA package submerged in this murky area would be in the best interest of justice. Plaintiff’s position is that certifying appeal under § 1292(b) would lead to the resolution of an unresolved, controlling question of law, and that it would avoid protracted litigation.

Plaintiff identifies proper legal bases to certify an appeal under § 1292(b), see Klinghoffer v. S.N.C. Achille Lauro, 921 F.2d 21, 23-24 (2d Cir.1990) (“Although the resolution of an issue need not necessarily terminate an action in order to be ‘controlling,’ it is clear that a question of law is ‘controlling’ if reversal of the district court’s order would terminate the action .”); Koehler, 101 F.3d at 865 (noting that a goal of § 1292(b) is to “sav[e] trial court time by avoiding fruitless litigation”), but neither legal basis is supported by the facts in this case. First, to the extent that package litigation under COGSA is “murky,” this murkiness is attributable to the apparently common failure of shippers and carriers to fill out form bills of lading in any manner anticipated by the law. As the Court noted in its summary judgment opinion, the law applicable to the package issue in non-container cases is clear. Royal Insurance, 2004 WL 369268, at *5 n. 1 (“[T]he Second Circuit has explicitly endorsed the analysis in Seguros, which this Court applies here, as ‘sensible’ and ‘straightforward.” ‘). No controlling question of law in this case is murky, and certifying appeal on this ground is not appropriate. Cf. ABN Amro Verzekeringen BV v. Geologistics Americas, Inc., 01 Civ. 5661, 02 Civ. 1238(DC), 2003 WL 21543529, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. July 9, 2003) (certifying appeal under § 1292(b) because “[i]n contrast to liability limitation disputes under federal law, COGSA or the Warsaw Convention, this areas of state law is comparatively unsettled”).

Second, while the Court agrees with plaintiff that avoiding protracted litigation would serve the interests of the parties and the Court, it is not clear that certifying appeal would accomplish this purpose. Fault has not yet been determined in this case, and well-developed Second Circuit law shows that even the issue of what unit constitutes a package must be resolved by the trier of fact. Certifying appeal at this time, before final judgment, would not likely contribute to a more efficient resolution of this case than would denying plaintiff’s motion and proceeding with the case in this Court. The Court therefore declines to grant plaintiff’s motion on this ground.

Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the Court denies plaintiff’s motion for certification of appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(3) and (b). The parties are ordered to appear for a status conference on July 22, 2004, at 10:30 a.m.

SO ORDERED.

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