Sides spar over where river death case should be heard

By Kelly Holleran | Jun 1, 2010

HUNTINGTON –- An Ohio man's complaint hangs in limbo after he and the defendants continue to argue over whether a federal or circuit court should hear the case.

HUNTINGTON –- An Ohio man's complaint hangs in limbo after he and the defendants continue to argue over whether a federal or circuit court should hear the case.

Jonathan Adams as administrator of the estate of Gary C. Adams originally filed a complaint March 26 in Wayne Circuit Court, where he would like to see the case remain, against Marathon Petroleum, Marathon Oil Company, M/V Tri-State, an unknown employee and an unknown corporation.

In his original complaint, Adams alleges Gary C. Adams worked for the defendants as a crew member on the towboat M/V Tri-State on Jan. 19 when the incident occurred.

"That at the aforesaid time and place, the Deceased Plaintiff, while in the performance of his duties, was knocked off the towboat and drowned in the Ohio River," the suit states.

At the time of Gary C. Adams' death, his mother lived with him and totally depended on his support, the complaint says. However, because of her son's death, Faith Adams has been deprived of his pecuniary benefits and has lost her son's love, affection, companionship and society, Jonathan Adams claims.

In his original complaint, Jonathan Adams makes allegations against M/V Tri-State, saying its unknown owners breached their duty to maintain the vessel in a safe and seaworthy condition and to maintain a safe work place. Jonathan Adams made the claim against M/V Tri-State and its owners under the provisions of the General Maritime Law, according to the complaint.

In his original two-count complaint, Jonathan Adams seeks compensatory damages, plus interest, costs and other relief the court deems just.

Marathon and M/V Tri-State removed Jonathan Adams' original complaint to U.S. District Court, saying the federal issues he raised can only be heard by a federal court.

"Specifically, Plaintiff has designated this matter as one of admirality and maritime jurisdiction within the meaning of Rule 9(h) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure," Marathon's response states.

"In addition, the Court has subject matter jurisdiction because Plaintiff is therefore pursuing an in rem cause of action against Tri-State."

After Marathon and M/V Tri-State removed Jonathan Adams' complaint to federal court, he filed an amended complaint against only Marathon and the unknown corporation.

In his amended complaint, Jonathan Adams alleges only Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness and dropped his allegation under the provisions of the General Maritime Law.

He then filed a motion to remand to Wayne Circuit Court, saying that because he dropped M/V Tri-State and his allegation under the General Maritime Law, the case no longer contains a federal question that can be heard in federal court. In addition, it contains no diversity of citizenship -– another requirement of cases heard in federal court.

Jonathan Adams also wants his case heard by a jury –- a condition that can only be accommodated in circuit court, according to his motion to remand.

"The Plaintiff wants his case heard by a jury as a 'Jones Act' and seaworthiness causes of action," the suit states. "His intention was to have his case heard in the Circuit Court of Wayne County, West Virginia and decided by a jury, pursuant to the 'saving to suitors' clause."

Marathon contends the case still belongs in federal court despite Jonathan Adams' amended complaint.

"By Plaintiff's admission, the only reason Plaintiff has sought to file an Amended Complaint was to mount a challenge to this Court's subject matter jurisdiction by attempting to eliminate the Federal questions raised in Plaintiff's original complaint," its opposition to the motion to remand states. "Nonetheless, it is well-settled that an amendment to the pleadings that is made in an attempt to defeat federal jurisdiction does not provide proper grounds upon which to remand a case to state court."

In fact, Jonathan Adams' dropped a defendant in his amended complaint in an attempt to manipulate the court and to keep his lawsuit in circuit court, Marathon claims.

"Plaintiff sued the M/V Tri-State, but upon learning that the in rem cause of action against the Tri-State is cognizable only in admirality before this Court, Plaintiff suddenly decided that he wanted to drop the Tri-State as a Defendant," the suit states. "Plaintiff's Motion and Memorandum provide no explanation for the sudden decision to release the Tri-State, other than the fact that the claim against it provided a basis for removal to this Court."

Even Adams' amended complaint would fall under federal jurisdiction, Marathon alleges, because he still seeks a claim under the general maritime law for his complaints of the M/V Tri-State's unseaworthiness. The federal courts have original jurisdiction over any complaints filed under admirality and maritime matters, according to Marathon's opposition to the motion to remand.

"The Court should take note of what Plaintiff's tactics truly represent -– an improper and legally flawed attempt to keep this case from being adjudicated by this Court," Marathon's opposition to the motion to remand states.

Jonathan Adams claims Marathon misconstrued his reasoning behind removing his case to federal court. His main reason for removing the case was so his case could be heard by a jury, he claims.

"The Plaintiff had substantive reasons for amending his complaint other than just to defeat federal jurisdiction, i.e. to have a jury decide this case," Jonathan Adams' answer states. "All that is required is that the case not be amended in bad faith and a reason exists other than for defeating federal jurisdiction."

In addition, Jonathan Adams removed M/V Tri-State only because he wanted to remove his in rem cause of action –- not to defeat a federal court jurisdiction, his answer says.

Because his amended complaint does not include a federal claim and because diversity of citizenship does not exist between Jonathan Adams and the defendants, the case should be remanded to circuit court, he claims.

Marathon wants to see all of Jonathan Adams' complaints dismissed and contends it should not be held responsible for Gary C. Adams' death.

"These answering defendants admit that on January 19, 2010, Gary C. Adams, due to his own negligence and failure to exercise reasonable care in the performance of his duties, entered into the Ohio River and drowned," Marathon's response states. "These Answering Defendants deny that Gary C. Adams was 'knocked off the towboat.'"

In fact, Gary C. Adams failed to appropriately address an emergency situation that he created or that caused his fall into the river, Marathon's response says.

"Insofar as Plaintiff failed to follow the warnings and/or appropriate instructions of his mate, Plaintiff is not entitled to the requested relief," the company states in its response.

In addition, the company says Gary C. Adams' mother is not completely without income because of her son's death as she has other sources of income, including social security.

Paul E. Biser and R.R. Fredeking II of Fredeking and Fredeking in Huntington will be representing Jonathan Adams.

Robert L. Massie and Ryan Q. Ashworth of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough in Huntington will be representing Marathon.

The case has been assigned to Judge Robert C. Chambers.

U.S. District Court case number: 3:10-cv-605

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