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Richard E. Hicks v. Waterman Steamship Coporation and Maersk Line, Ltd.

Date Decided: September 16th, 2009
Originally Filed in: Texas (Federal)
Decided by: Texas Southern District Court (Federal)
Court: USDC Southern District of Texas
Judge: Judge Ellison
Citation: 2009 WL 4572776 (SD TX 2009)

Background:
Plaintiff. Richard E. Hicks ("Hicks") was a seaman, cook, aboard the US flagged containership M/V Maersk Alabama ("Maersk"). The Maersk was owned and operated by Maersk Line, Ltd. and chartered by Waterman Steamship Corporation ("Waterman"). Hicks filed this action pursuant to the Jones Act, unseaworthiness, negligence, and common law claims arising from facts/omissions, and breaches of duties owed to him as an employee and seaman.

Shortly after beginning its voyage, pirates attempted, unsuccessfully, to hijack the Maersk.
Hicks alleged that he sustained injuries during the incident with the pirates. He further alleged that Maserk Line and Waterman failed to provide adequate security for the Maersk thereby proximately causing his causing his injuries.

Defendants removed this case from state court to federal court and now, Hicks has moved to remand the suit to state court.


Issues:
Did the Court grant Hicks' motion and remand this claim, under the Jones Act, to state court?

Held:
The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA) was enacted to address maritime transportation security and deter potential incidents.

The MTSA requires owners and operators of vessels and facilities that may be involved in a transportation security incident to prepare a security plan for determining a transportation incident to the maximum extent practicable.

The plans must be consistent with the requirements of the National Maritime Transportation Security Plan and Area Maritime Transportation Security Plans and must include provisions for establishing and maintaining physical security, passenger and cargo security, and personnel security.

Maersk drafted and compiled a vessel security plan, submitted it to the US Coast Guard, and it was approved.

Under the Jones Act, a party may remove an entire action whenever a separate and independent claim or cause of action within the jurisdiction conferred by 28 USC §1331, is joined with one or more otherwise non-removable claims.

A federal claim is separate and independent if it involves obligations distinct from non-removable claims in the case.

Generally a Jones Act claim initially filed in state court cannot be removed, defendants must show that this case was properly removed to this Court.

Defendants argued that the Jones Act provided Hicks a remedy only against Waterman, the charterer of Maersk and his sole employer. Maersk's obligations to Hicks are governed, on the other hand, by the MTSA.

Therefore, according to the defendants, Hicks' negligence claim against Maersk for failure to provide adequate security necessarily stated a violation of security obligations under U.S. national security laws, which there are separate and independent federal claim from the non-removable Jones Act claim.

However, this Court recognized that negligence and unseaworthiness claims, under the Jones Act, have been and are brought against vessel owners and charterers. This Court found that even though Maersk is not found to be Hicks's employer for purposes of the Jones Act, it would not exclude Maersk Line from liability from the other maritime actions, therefore Hicks is not necessarily alleging a violation of federal security law.

Defendants also contended that removal jurisdiction is proper based on complete diversity, however, this Court found that Jones Act claims are not subject to removal to federal court, even in the event of diversity of parties.

Accordingly, this Court remanded the action back to state court.


Comments:
The defendants attempted to argue that the plaintiff here was alleging, in his complaint, a violation of a US federal security statute and therefore, would subject the entire case to federal court.

However, the plaintiff did not even mention the federal statute in question and because, generally, courts give greater deference to the plaintiff's choice of state or federal court in Jones Act claims, they re-removed the case back to state court for further proceedings.

Steve Gordon


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