Plaintiff Entitled to Jury Trial When Asserting Admiralty and Diversity Claims Arising From Same Set of Facts

On March 7, 2011, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Luera v. M/V ALBERTA, and found that when a Plaintiff asserts both admiralty and diversity jurisdiction as the jurisdictional basis for its claims and are based on one event, causing one set of injuries, and having one victim, the Plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial on the entire matter.

Melinda Luera was working as a cargo check for a stevedoring company. She was injured when the M/V ALBERTA passed the VOC ROSE in close proximity and at an excessive rate of speed, causing the VOC ROSE to surge. The surge, in turn, caused one of the mooring lines to rupture. The ruptured line struck Luera and she suffered severe leg injuries. Luera brought two (2) actions, one against both ships in rem and one against both ship owners in personam. In her in rem claims against the vessels, she asserted admiralty jurisdiction. In her in personam claims against the ship owners, she asserted diversity jurisdiction and demanded a jury trial. The District Court combined these actions and ordered that they be tried together before a jury. The defendants appealed this decision arguing that Luera is not entitled to a jury trial because she elected to proceed under admiralty rules by virtue of the in rem claims.

The Fifth Circuit analyzed the right to a jury trial where a Plaintiff asserts both admiralty and diversity jurisdiction through Fitzgerald v. United States, 374 U.S. 16 (1963). In Fitzgerald the Supreme Court held that it was an error for the district court to dismiss the jury after the non-admiralty claims were heard because all of the claims should have been tried together through the same fact finder. In the present case, the court held that without an express prohibition on jury trials in admiralty cases, the concerns of judicial economy and fair administration of justice override the historic tradition of trying admiralty claims through a bench trial, when the claims are closely related.

Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit held that the District Court did not err in ordering all of the claims to be tried by a jury.

Read a copy of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Decision

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