District Court Dismisses Case Where Ship Owner’s Only Significant Contact with the U.S. was the Maintenance of an Office

The World in U.S. Courts: Summer and Fall 2016 - Jones Act (Covering Injuries at Sea)

In re M/V MSC Flaminia, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, April 27, 2016

A crew member was killed in an explosion aboard a cargo ship and his estate brought a wrongful death suit seeking damages under the Jones Act.  Defendant Conti owned the ship and defendant NSB operated the ship.  The defendants moved for summary judgment on grounds that the Jones Act did not apply for lack of sufficient contacts with the United States.

The Jones Act allows any seaman who suffers a personal injury during employment the right to a jury trial, but only if there is a substantial connection between the transaction and the United States.  The Jones Act has been applied to American seamen, regardless of the place of injury or the vessel’s origin, and to vessels registered in the U.S. (i.e. American-flagged vessels).  In this case, the deceased was not an American, the ship was not registered in the U.S., and NSB and Conti were both German companies.

The District Court in New York stated that the ultimate test for applicability of the Jones Act is whether the case has “substantial contacts” with the U.S.  To apply the test, courts have examined factors including (1) the place of the wrongful act; (2) the law of the ship's flag; (3) the allegiance or domicile of the injured seaman; (4) the allegiance of the ship owner; (5) the place where the shipping articles were signed; (6) the accessibility of the foreign forum; (7) the law of the forum; (8) the ship owner’s “base of operations”; and (9) the location of the managing and chartering agents for the vessel.

The Court concluded that the only factor arguably weighing in favor of retaining the case was that NSB had a permanent office in New York.  However, and unlike other cases where jurisdiction had been upheld based on that factor, a minority of the vessels that NSB managed traveled to and from U.S. ports and the defendants were non-U.S. companies, owned by non-U.S. persons and with neither U.S.-based executives nor U.S. subsidiaries. 

Concluding that contacts with U.S. ports, without more, are not sufficient to allow application of the Jones Act, the Court dismissed the case.

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