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S.D. Florida Finds For Vessel Owner Against Necessaries Provider

In DELTA NOVEMBER, LLC. vs. BAKER, 23 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. D44a (S.D. Fla. August 22, 2011), a vessel owner entered into oral repair contract with a repairer and brought the action against the repairer alleging breach of maritime contract/warranty of workmanlike performance and breach of marine bailment, after vessel sank at its berth causing damages to its hull, machinery, appurtenances, and plaintiff's personal property. The repairer moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, improper venue, and failure to state a claim.

The facts of the case are as follows. Plaintiff Delta November, LLC (“Plaintiff”) entered into an oral contract with Defendant Richard Baker (“Defendant”) to repair the starboard engine of Defendant's vessel, the M/Y CJ, a 33-foot Chris-Craft fly bridge sportfish vessel. At the time, the vessel was docked at its home dock, Worldwide Sportsman, and connected to shore-side power. The Defendant began the repairs at Worldwide Sportsman, which is located in Islamorada, Florida, wherein the Defendant then requested permission to move the vessel from Worldwide Sportsman to a berth behind Defendant's house in Tavernier, Florida. The Plaintiff granted permission for the Defendant to shift the vessel to his own house. However, instead of moving the vessel to his own house, the Defendant shifted the vessel to a berth located behind his neighbor's house. When the Defendant shifted the vessel, he failed to reconnect shore-side power. The Defendant also failed to monitor the vessel.

While docked at the Defendant's neighbor's house, the vessel began taking on water from the shaft's packing gland. The vessel's onboard bilge pumps kept up with the intruding water until the battery life died. If the Defendant had connected the vessel to shore-side power or if he had monitored the vessel, he could have saved the vessel. Instead, the vessel sank at its berth causing damage to its hull, machinery, appurtenances, and Plaintiff's personal property. The Plaintiff also alleges that the Defendant damaged the packing gland by improperly removing the starboard engine and failed to confirm the packing gland's integrity after removing the starboard engine.

The court found that the complaint falls within admiralty jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. section 1333 because the vessel was technically capable of being used in navigation and qualifies as a vessel where it was capable of floating when defendant took possession of it, and there is no allegation that its navigation system was damaged. The court also found that venue is proper where plaintiff has alleged that damage occurred in the district where complaint was filed. The court further found that venue is proper in southern district of Florida, because this is in personam admiralty action, and defendant was properly served in the district. 

Moreover, the court found that the claim for breach of warranty of workmanlike performance in an oral contract for repair should not be dismissed for failure to state claim. The court reasoned that there was no merit to the arguments that the complaint fails to state a claim because the plaintiff failed to plead that its principal or agent entered into oral contract with defendant and secondly, because oral contracts are unenforceable in admiralty. The court found that the claim for breach of marine bailment should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim where complaint, contrary to defendant's assertion, specifically alleges that defendant had exclusive possession of vessel and property to exclusion of the plaintiff.

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