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July 17, 1985


The opinion of the court was delivered by: POLLAK

 This case arises out of a March, 1978 accident which damaged Pier 7 on Newton Creek in Gloucester, New Jersey. According to the Complaint, two heavy steel coils fell onto the pier during the course of unloading cargo from the S.S. Ming Joy. Complaint paras. 12-15. The coils allegedly caused extensive damage to the surface of the pier and to the sea wall. Holt Hauling and Warehousing Systems, Pier 7's owner, sued the Ming Joy, its owner (Yangming Marine Transport, hereinafter "Yangming"), and its charterer (Retla Steamship Company, hereinafter "Retla"), alleging that the unseaworthiness of the Ming Joy and the negligence of its personnel caused the accident. Yangming then filed a third-party complaint against the stevedore (Holt Marine Terminal, hereinafter "Holt Marine"), alleging that the stevedore's negligence in unloading the cargo was the cause of the accident. Holt Marine counterclaimed, alleging that Yangming's negligence had cost Holt Marine the use of Pier 7 for some period of time. The counterclaim, as amended, seeks recovery of "stevedoring and related revenues" which Holt Marine lost due to the pier's incapacitation.

 The primary claim in this case has settled, so that the sole remaining dispute is between the Yangming and the Ming Joy on the one hand, and Holt Marine on the other. Yangming has moved for summary judgment on Holt Marine's counterclaim, arguing that it is barred by Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co. v. Flint, 275 U.S. 303, 72 L. Ed. 290, 48 S. Ct. 134 (1927). In that case, the Supreme Court, per Justice Holmes, rejected the claim of a ship's time charterer for loss of use of the ship due to the negligence of the defendant dry dock. Yangming contends that Robins Dry Dock establishes that Holt Marine cannot recover in tort for economic losses occasioned by damage to property in which Holt Marine had no proprietary interest. Holt Marine accepts the validity of Robins Dry Dock and the doctrine it spawned, but argues that it does not bar the counterclaim against Yangming because Holt Marine in fact had a valid property interest in Pier 7 under New Jersey law. Both parties have briefed and orally argued Yangming's motion.

 In addition to their legal arguments, the parties have devoted substantial energy and paper to characterizing the web of business relationships surrounding Pier 7. On this motion for summary judgment, of course, I must resolve all factual disputes in Holt Marine's favor. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 340 (3d Cir. 1985). Bearing this standard in mind, I consider below the nature of Holt Marine's relationship to Pier 7 and the significance of that relationship under Robins Dry Dock.


 Both Yangming and Holt Marine presume that Robins Dry Dock bars Holt Marine from recovering on its counterclaim unless Holt Marine had a proprietary interest in Pier 7 at the time of the accident. Consequently, both parties treat the nature of Holt Marine's interest in the pier as the primary issue for purposes of deciding Yangming's motion.

 Pier 7's owner was, at all relevant times, Holt Hauling and Warehousing Systems. In July 1976, Holt Hauling leased Pier 7 to Pierpoint Management Corporation. The lease agreement (which is attached as Exhibit A to Holt Marine's answer to Yangming's motion for summary judgment) is triangular: it involves Holt Hauling as landlord, Pierpoint as tenant, and Retla Steamship Company as the chief supplier of shipping business to the pier. (In response to questions from the bench at oral argument, the parties stated that Retla is Pierpoint's corporate parent.) Pierpoint was to operate and maintain the pier, pay utilities, and indemnify Holt Hauling for any liabilities incurred because of Pierpoint's activities. Rent was to be paid according to the tonnage of Retla cargo unloaded at the pier: base rental was $300,000 per year (based on $2 per short ton on the first 150,000 tons of steel and wood products to be unloaded), plus $1 for every short ton over 150,000 which might be unloaded.

 Shortly after Pierpoint leased the pier from Holt Hauling, Pierpoint and Holt Marine entered into an informal agreement permitting Holt Marine to use Pier 7 under certain conditions. Under this agreement, Holt Marine was permitted to use Pier 7 to unload cargo from vessels which it had chartered or which it had otherwise induced to unload cargo at Pier 7, to the extent that such use did not interfere with Pierpoint's use of the pier. *fn1" Holt Marine was not, during the period covered by this agreement, the only stevedore working at Pier 7. Pierpoint employed Cooper Stevedoring to unload Retla vessels; in addition, Cooper was free to bring in other vessels for unloading as long as it did not interfere with Retla business. *fn2"

 In May 1977, Pierpoint made Holt Marine "our exclusive sub-contractor of certain terminal services contemplated at Pier 7." *fn3" Holt Marine was henceforth to "perform all customary terminal services" as to both Retla vessels and Holt-induced vessels. *fn4" Under this revised arrangement, Holt Marine was free to arrange to berth vessels as long as its berthing arrangements were consistent with the needs of Retla vessels. In order to implement this limitation, Holt Marine was kept apprised of when Retla vessels would be docking at Pier 7. *fn5" Holt Marine was not required to give Pierpoint advance notice of its plans to berth non-Retla vessels, but did so "as a courtesy." *fn6"

  In return for this largely unrestricted use of Pier 7, Holt Marine agreed to pay Pierpoint according to the volume of cargo unloaded at the pier. No base rental was charged; payment was strictly according to business volume. *fn7" In addition to its payment obligations, Holt Marine agreed to assume (1) Pierpoint's routine maintenance obligations under Pierpoint's lease agreement with Holt Hauling, and (2) Pierpoint's liability insurance obligations under that lease agreement. Finally, Holt Marine was obliged to pay the cost of any utilities it required to perform its stevedoring services. *fn8"

 The accident which gave rise to this lawsuit occurred while the Ming Joy, a Retla vessel, was being off-loaded at Pier 7. Holt Marine performed stevedoring services for the Ming Joy, as it apparently did for all other Retla vessels using Pier 7.


 Both Yangming and Holt Marine assume that Robins Dry Dock bars recovery for negligently inflicted harm to a non-proprietary interest. For the reasons that follow, I find this a correct statement of the rule which Robins Dry Dock lays down. The parties further presume that, in order to apply that test to this case, I must look to the state law of New Jersey to determine whether Holt Marine had a "property" interest in Pier 7. This is incorrect. Robins Dry Dock and the cases which follow it establish a federal common law limitation on maritime tort recovery. The scope of that limitation turns not on the fine points of state property law but on the judicial economy concerns which spawned the limitation and which give it content. In order better to explain how those concerns apply in this case, I begin by briefly discussing Robins Dry Dock and the broader doctrine which it created. Then, I turn to the nature of the interests to which Robins Dry Dock applies, in ...

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