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Cooper v. Loper

filed: January 17, 1991.


On Appeal From the United States District Court For the District of New Jersey; D.C. Civil Action No. 85-02861.

Stapleton, Hutchinson, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Stapleton


STAPLETON, Circuit Judge

Plaintiff Thomas Cooper was injured while off-loading a ship; after bringing this action, he received compensation in exchange for settling his claim against the shipowners. These cross-appeals arise from the efforts of the shipowners, third-party plaintiffs, Irving W. Loper and Michael Loper ("shipowners"), to secure indemnification or contribution from the dockowner, third-party defendant, Axelsson & Johnson, Inc. ("dockowner"). Both parties appeal from the district court's entry of final judgment after a bench trial of the third-party claims. The shipowners argue that the district court erred in awarding only 80% of the amounts paid by them in settlement and in refusing to award attorneys' fees. The dockowner argues that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, that the case should have been tried to a jury, and that the district court's findings of fact are clearly erroneous. We hold that the district court had jurisdiction, that it could hear this case as a bench trial, and that its findings of fact are not clearly erroneous. We further hold, however, that full indemnity and attorneys' fees should have been awarded. Therefore, we will remand this case for entry of a judgment in accordance with this decision.


Cooper, an employee of the shipowners, was injured when he was hit with a large bucket of fish suspended from the boom of a shoreside crane. Cooper had been filling the bucket on the ship and then swinging it to dock employees on land. The district court found that the dock employees failed to catch the bucket and that it swung back to the ship, hitting Cooper who had bent down to clear fish and other debris from the deck around his feet.

Cooper brought this case under the Jones Act and "General Maritime Law" against the shipowners. The shipowners impleaded the dockowner pursuant to Rule 14(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, demanding a judgment in favor of the plaintiff, as well as asserting their own claim for contribution or indemnity. After a jury was empaneled, but before trial, the shipowners settled with Cooper. The dockowner was given the opportunity to approve the settlement or assume defense of Cooper's claim against the shipowners.

After the settlement was announced, the judge proposed that he conduct a bench trial of the remaining claims against the dockowner. He conferred with counsel, and because there was ultimately no objection, he proceeded to trial. The judge determined that Cooper had been adequately compensated by the settlement and so made no award in Cooper's favor against the dockowner. He further concluded that the shipowners were not entitled to indemnification, but that they were entitled to contribution in the amount of 80% of their settlement together with prejudgment interest from the date of the settlement. Finally, the district court held that the shipowners were not entitled to recover from the dockowner any part of the attorneys' fees spent in defending against Cooper's claim. These cross-appeals followed.


The dockowner argues that the indemnity claim was not within the district court's admiralty jurisdiction and that therefore the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over that claim. It bases this argument on the requirement of Rule 9(h) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure*fn1 that, in certain cases, an admiralty claim must be specifically identified as such in the pleadings. Even assuming the dockowner is correct in asserting that the shipowners did not comply with Rule 9(h), this argument is without merit.

The dockowner's argument confuses admiralty as a source of procedural rules with admiralty as a basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction. Rule 9(h) states that when an alternate basis for federal jurisdiction exists, admiralty procedures will be followed only if the pleadings identify the admiralty claim as such. If a claim can only be brought as one in admiralty, there is no need to specify that admiralty procedures will be used. Nothing in Rule 9(h) speaks to subject matter jurisdiction.

Whether a particular claim is an admiralty claim for purposes of federal subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 1333,*fn2 depends solely on the nature of the claim. A "stevedoring contract is a maritime contract" and a federal district court has jurisdiction over a claim for breach of such a contract under Section 1333. A&G Stevedores v. Ellerman Lines, 369 U.S. 355, 359, 182 S. Ct. 780, 7 L. Ed. 2d 798 (1962). As we shall hereafter see, the shipowners' claim for indemnity under the doctrine of Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Pan-Atlantic S.S. Corp., 350 U.S. 124, 76 S. Ct. 232, 100 L. Ed. 133 (1956) is a claim for breach of a warranty implied in such a contract. As a result, Ryan's indemnity claims have uniformly been regarded as admiralty claims. See, e.g., Humble Oil & Refining Co. v. Philadelphia Ship Maintenance Co., 444 F.2d 727, 729 (3d Cir. 1971)("the shipowner instituted this action in admiralty, seeking indemnification [from the stevedore] for the damages awarded [to the injured employee.]"). Hamburg-Amerika Linie v. Gulf Puerto Rico Lines, 579 F.2d 115, 118 (1 Cir. 1978) ("In a case such as this, where the claim is bottomed on indemnity for damages paid in an unseaworthiness action to a longshoreman hurt in the process of unloading cargo purportedly faultily stowed, the stevedoring contract, with its implied warranty of workmanlike performance, is of maritime nature and character.").

The dockowner cites cases in which indemnity claims have been tried to a jury as evidence that such claims are not necessarily within admiralty jurisdiction. See, e.g., Fitzgerald v. United States Lines, 374 U.S. 16, 83 S. Ct. 1646, 10 L. Ed. 2d 720 (1963). This also confuses admiralty procedure with admiralty subject matter jurisdiction; that non-admiralty procedure is applied does not demonstrate that the claim has ceased to be an admiralty claim. All of those cases involved at least one other claim that created a right to a jury trial; the indemnity claims were tried to the jury, not because the indemnity claim ceased to be an admiralty claim, but because there is no bar to trying an admiralty claim to a jury and conducting two separate trials in the same case "unduly complicates and confuses a trial, creates difficulties in applying the ...

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