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Armstrong v. National Shipping Co. of Saudi Arabia

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 20, 2015

JORDAN ARMSTRONG, Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONAL SHIPPING COMPANY OF SAUDI ARABIA, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

ELLEN LIPTON HOLLANDER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Jordan Armstrong, a longshoreman, has brought suit against eight defendants pursuant to the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the court and common law, alleging negligence, breach of implied warranty, and liability under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 901, et seq. See ECF 20 ("Amended Complaint").[1] The defendants are National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia ("National Shipping"); JBH Worldwide, LLC ("JBH"); Reem Heavy Equipment, Ltd. ("Reem"); Hertz Equipment Rental Corp. ("Hertz"); Wallis Concrete, LLC ("Wallis"); Shoppa's Material Handling Management, LLC ("Shoppa's"); IronPlanet, Inc. ("IronPlanet"); and Shippers Stevedoring Company ("SSC"). Plaintiff alleges that, on or about June 10, 2013, while he was working as a longshoreman at the Port of Baltimore, servicing a ship called the M/V Saudi Tabuk, see id. ¶¶ 6, 8, he suffered severe bodily injury after being struck by a forklift that was improperly loaded on the ship. Id. ¶¶ 19, 27. Plaintiff seeks to hold defendants collectively responsible for approximately $13, 000, 000 in damages. ECF 20 at 10, 13, 16.

Defendant SSC has moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2), claiming lack of personal jurisdiction. See ECF 28 ("Motion") and ECF 28-1 (supporting memorandum) (hereinafter, collectively, the "Motion"). SSC's Motion is supported by an affidavit from SSC's Vice President of Risk Management, Leonard Clark. See ECF 28-2 ("Clark Aff."). Plaintiff opposes the Motion (ECF 41, "Opposition"), and requests the following relief, id. at 13 (emphasis added):

a. That the Defendant Shipper Stevedoring Company's Motion to Dismiss be denied; or, in the alternative,
b. That this court reserve judgment on the issue of jurisdiction pending completion of discovery in this matter; or, in the alternative,
c. That Plaintiff be granted leave to amend his Complaint, or, in the alternative,
d. That the Plaintiff be permitted to transfer the above-captioned case, or any necessary part thereof, to the proper jurisdiction; and
e. That the Petitioner be granted such other and further relief as the nature of his cause may require.

SSC replied to plaintiff's Opposition on November 3, 2014 (ECF 46, "Reply"). In addition, SSC provided a supplemental affidavit from Mr. Clark (ECF 41-1, "Clark Supp. Aff.").

With the exception of plaintiff's request to transfer, the issues have been fully briefed. No hearing is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I am satisfied that this court lacks personal jurisdiction as to SSC. However, I will hold SSC's Motion in abeyance pending amplification of plaintiff's request to transfer.

Factual Background

At the time of plaintiff's injury, plaintiff was a longshoreman working at the Port of Baltimore in Maryland. ECF 20 ¶¶ 19-20; see also ECF 41 at 3. SSC, which provides stevedoring services, is a Texas corporation with its principal place of business in Houston, Texas. ECF 20 at ¶ 10; see also ECF 28-1 at 3. On or about June 10, 2013, SSC provided stevedoring services at the Port of Houston. See ECF 20 ¶¶ 10, 19. The services included the loading of a forklift onto a vessel, the M/V Saudi Tabuk. ECF 28-2, Clark Aff. ¶ 8; see also ECF 41 at 3. With the forklift aboard, the M/V Saudi Tabuk travelled from the Port of Houston to the Port of Baltimore. ECF 20 ¶ 11. Plaintiff was among those responsible for servicing the ship in Baltimore. See id. ¶ 19. In the process of servicing the vessel, plaintiff was injured. Id. ¶¶ 19, 31, 37.

Plaintiff maintains that the accident was due in large part to a mechanical defect in the forklift's emergency brake system. See id. ¶ 14. He alleges: "A post-accident inspection of the forklift... revealed that the [forklift's] emergency brake cable had previously been stretched beyond the adjustment limits causing the brake shoes not to put full pressure on the drums allowing the wheels to rotate with the parking brake applied." ECF 20 ¶ 14.

In his Amended Complaint, plaintiff alleges that defendants were negligent with regard to the maintenance, handling, and transport of the allegedly defective forklift. See generally ECF 20. Generally, plaintiff alleges that Hertz previously owned the forklift, knew of its defect, yet sold it without any warning, id. ¶ 15; Reem sold the forklift, but is also the "ultimate recipient/buyer", id. ¶ 13; Shoppa's owns the auction yard from which the defective forklift was transported, id. ¶ 17; IronPlanet operated the auction house that handled the sale of the defective forklift, id. ¶ 18; Wallis transported the forklift from the auction yard to the Port of Houston, id. ¶ 16; National Shipping owned the M/V Saudi Tabuk, id. ¶ 8; SSC served as the stevedore company for the Port of Houston at the relevant time, id. ¶ 10; and JBH transported the forklift from Texas to Maryland, id. ¶ 11. According to plaintiff, "all Defendants regularly conduct business within the State of Maryland and/or served to place the defective forklift into the stream of commerce with reasonable foreseeability that same may ultimately enter the State of Maryland." Id. ¶ 3.

In its Motion, SSC contends that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction as to SSC. See ECF 28. SSC's Vice President of Risk Management, Leonard Clark, provided the following facts in support of SSC's challenge to the jurisdiction of this Court, ECF 28-2, Clark Aff. ¶¶ 3-8:

3. SSC is in the business of providing stevedoring and marine terminal operations at the Port of Houston, and occasionally in Beaumont, and other cities within Texas. SSC only provides services in Texas, although in previous years SSC also provided stevedoring services in Louisiana and South Carolina.
4. SSC does not manufacture, distribute or sell any goods.
5. SSC does not now, nor has it ever provided any services in the State of Maryland. SSC does not now, nor has it ever had any representatives, employees or agents in Maryland.
6. SSC does not advertise in any publications distributed in Maryland. SSC does not solicit business from Maryland....
7. SSC does not direct, control, [or] determine... the ultimate destination of the cargo it loads on ships, and SSC has no control over the routes of the vessels it loads, or the ports that the vessels it loads might call upon on their way to their ultimate destinations.
8. With respect to the Complaint filed by Jordan Armstrong... SSC loaded the forklift referenced in the Complaint onto the M/V Saudi Tabuk in Houston, Texas. SSC did not direct, control or determine the destination of the forklift. After loading and securing the forklift, SSC had no further involvement or responsibility regarding the transport or delivery of the forklift....

Plaintiff counters that, "but for the actions of SSC placing the forklift onto the M/V Saudi Tabuk, the forklift would not have left the State of Texas and traveled to the State of Maryland where the Plaintiff suffered his injuries." ECF 41 at 9. Further, plaintiff avers that SSC "receive[s] substantial revenue through placing goods onto vessels with the intent of them entering the stream of commerce where they frequently enter Maryland through the Port of Baltimore." Id. at 13. And, plaintiff states that "SSC appears to have several principles [sic] and affiliates providing stevedoring... and related businesses... throughout the United States." Id. at 3-4.

Additional facts are included in the Discussion.

Legal Standard

A motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction arises under Rule 12(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. "When a court's personal jurisdiction is properly challenged by a Rule 12(b)(2) motion, the jurisdictional question thus raised is one for the judge, with the burden on the plaintiff ultimately to prove the existence of a ground for jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence." Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989). "If the existence of jurisdiction turns on disputed factual questions the court may resolve the [jurisdictional] challenge on the basis of a separate evidentiary hearing, or may defer ruling pending receipt at trial of evidence relevant to the jurisdictional question." Id. at 676.

A court may, in its discretion, permit discovery as to the jurisdictional issue. See Mylan Laboratories, Inc. v. Akzo, N.V., 2 F.3d 56, 64 (4th Cir. 1993). However, neither discovery nor an evidentiary hearing is required to resolve a motion under Rule 12(b)(2). See generally 5B WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 1351 at 274-313 (3d ed. 2004, 2011 Supp.). Rather, the district court may address the question of personal jurisdiction as a preliminary matter, ruling solely on the basis of motion papers, supporting legal memoranda, affidavits, and the allegations in the complaint. Consulting Eng'rs Corp. v. Geometric Ltd., 561 F.3d 273, 276 (4th Cir. 2009). In that circumstance, the plaintiff need only make "a prima facie showing of a sufficient jurisdictional basis to survive the jurisdictional challenge." Id.

"In deciding whether the plaintiff has made the requisite showing, the court must take all disputed facts and reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff." Carefirst of Maryland, Inc. v. Carefirst Pregnancy Ctrs., Inc., 334 F.3d 390, 396 (4th Cir. 2003). But, "district courts are not required to look solely to the plaintiff's proof in drawing those inferences." Mylan Laboratories, 2 F.3d at 62. And, "[a] threshold prima facie finding that personal jurisdiction is proper does not finally settle the issue; plaintiff must eventually prove the existence of personal jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence, either at trial or at a pretrial evidentiary hearing.'" New Wellington Fin. Corp. v. Flagship Resort Dev. Corp., 416 F.3d 290, 294 n.5 (4th Cir. 2005) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

Discussion

Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(k)(1) authorizes a federal district court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant in accordance with the law of the state in which the district court is located. Carefirst of Maryland, 334 F.3d at 396. Therefore, "to assert personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, two conditions must be satisfied: (1) the exercise of jurisdiction must be authorized under the state's long-arm statute; and (2) ...


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