APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civ. No. 75-0364)
Before Seitz, Chief Judge, Higginbotham, Circuit Judge, and Meanor, District Judge.*fn*
Mrs. Prava Chatterjee appeals from the district court's denial of her petition to vacate and set aside a settlement and release of her claim relating to her son's maritime death.
Pratik Chatterjee, an Indian crewmember of the S.S. CORINTHOS, was killed on January 31, 1975, when the CORINTHOS exploded after being struck by the S.S. EDGAR M. QUEENY. Within one week of the accident, counsel for the QUEENY instituted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania an exoneration from or limitation of liability proceeding pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 185 (1970). In compliance with Supplemental Rule F(4) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the district court issued a notice to all persons wishing to assert claims against the QUEENY to file such claims before March 30, 1975, a deadline that was ultimately extended to December 1975. A copy of this notice was mailed to the decedent's last known address in India. A Baton Rouge law firm representing a number of families of the deceased crewmembers filed a timely claim on behalf of the Chatterjee family.
It is undisputed that in December 1975, the attorneys who had filed suit on behalf of the Chatterjees and an attorney for the QUEENY flew to India to make final arrangements for certain settlement agreements. In New Delhi, Anil Ranjan Ghosal, Mrs. Chatterjee's son-in-law, accepted the settlement proceeds from an $87,000 settlement and signed a release of all claims relating to Pratik's death. Ghosal was purportedly acting pursuant to a special power of attorney that he claimed was executed in Calcutta by the appropriate family members, including Mrs. Chatterjee, and that appeared to be attested to by an Indian justice of the peace. The validity of the power of attorney and its attestation is contested by the parties.
Three-and-one-half years after Ghosal accepted the settlement and signed the release, Mrs. Chatterjee filed a petition in the limitation proceeding, which was still pending in the district court, to set aside the settlement and release. She asserted that her son's death had not been revealed to her until November 1977, that she did not learn of the settlement until May 1978, that she had never retained American counsel or signed the special power of attorney authorizing Ghosal to act on her behalf, and that she was not in India at the time she purportedly signed the power of attorney, having lived in Bangladesh until February 1977. She claimed to be Pratik Chatterjee's sole heir under Indian law. The parties having an interest in the QUEENY asserted three principal defenses: Accord and satisfaction by the release signed by Ghosal, laches, and the statute of limitations. They requested that the district court dismiss the petition.
Several months after filing her petition in the limitation proceeding, Mrs. Chatterjee brought a tort action in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, naming as defendants the QUEENY owners and the attorneys who had participated in the settlement, and asking for damages of $3.25 million. After the tort action was filed, the district court in the limitation proceeding denied Mrs. Chatterjee's petition to set aside and vacate the settlement and release. The court did so without holding an evidentiary hearing, although it had held one conference with the parties, and with no motions before it. It determined that all parties were joined in the tort action, pending before a different judge, and that it would not, therefore, decide the claim in the context of the limitation proceeding. In response to Mrs. Chatterjee's petition for reconsideration, the court indicated that it would decide any issues pertaining to the limitation proceeding only after the tort action was resolved. Mrs. Chatterjee appealed the district court's order denying her petition.
Mrs. Chatterjee's appeal rests on three contentions: First, that the district court's denial of her petition was a decision on the merits, inconsistent with substantive admiralty law; second, that she had a right to an evidentiary hearing, particularly in the absence of a motion to dismiss, before the district court made its decision; and third, that she had a right to have her admiralty claim decided without regard to the tort action. We consider the first two contentions together.
The district court denied Mrs. Chatterjee's petition to vacate and set aside the settlement and release on January 17, 1980. It concluded that:
All of the issues which petitioner has raised in her petition have also been raised by her in her complaint filed on September 27, 1979, and which has been assigned to (another judge). The relief she seeks can be obtained in that action and all the parties will be present and all the issues hopefully finally ...