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Welch v. Prop Transport & Trading, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Greenville Division

June 1, 2017

DEWEY WELCH PLAINTIFF
v.
PROP TRANSPORT & TRADING, LLC DEFENDANTS

          ORDER ON MOTION TO ALTER JUDGMENT

          JANE M. VIRDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on the motion [124] of the Plaintiff Dewey Welch, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), to alter this court's order granting Greenville Port Commission's (“the Port”) motion for partial summary judgment dated March 10, 2017 [112]. As discussed below in greater detail, the court finds that insofar as the issues raised by the summary judgment motion were addressed in the prior order, the order will stand. However, as relates to the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (Miss. Code Ann. § 11-1-46 et seq.) (“MTCA”), the court notes that its prior order addressed only whether that act's limitation on compensatory damages and prohibition of punitive damages in tort suits against political subdivisions applies to a state cause of action for negligence asserted in federal court.

Welch alleges that the Port is liable under state law for general negligence and under general maritime law for unseaworthiness. . . . In its Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [82], the Port argues that the court can determine as a matter of law that Welch cannot state an unseaworthiness claim against it because it is not the owner or operator of the vessel upon which Welch was allegedly injured. The Port further argues that it is entitled to the protections afforded to governmental entities by the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) as to Welch's state law claims for general negligence.

         Order [112] at 1-2 (emphasis added). The order [112] did not, for the reasons discussed below, address a different issue-whether the state statutory damages limitations apply to a general maritime claim for negligence. The court finds it proper to address such issue in the instant order.

         Rule 59(e)

         “Depending on the timing of the motion, the Fifth Circuit treats a motion for reconsideration as either a motion to alter or amend under Rule 59(e), or a motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b).” Kennedy v. Jefferson Cty. Hosp., 2016 WL 6495595, at *1 (S.D.Miss. Nov. 2, 2016) (citing Lavespere v. Niagara Mach. & Tool Works, Inc., 910 F.2d 167, 173 (5th Cir. 1990)). If the motion is filed within 28 days of entry of the judgment, then the motion constitutes a motion to alter or amend under Rule 59(e). Id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e). If a motion is filed more than 28 days, but not more than one year, after entry of judgment is governed by Rule 60(b). Id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). Because Welch's motion was filed on the twenty-seventh day following entry of judgment, the court shall treat it as a motion to alter or amend under Rule 59(e).

         A motion to alter or amend judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) constitutes a request for “extraordinary” relief. Id. (citing In re Pequeno, 240 Fed. App'x 634, 636 (5th Cir. 2007)). “Such relief is appropriate only in three circumstances: ‘(1) an intervening change in controlling law, (2) the availability of new evidence not previously available, or (3) the need to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice.'” Id.; (citing In re Pequeno, 240 Fed. App'x at 636).

         The prior order granting the Port's motion for partial summary judgment [112]

         In accord with the above and its prior order [112] at pp. 1-2, the court notes again that while Plaintiff's amended complaint asserts a claim for unseaworthiness under general maritime law, with respect to negligence, the Plaintiff makes no reference to general maritime law. To the contrary, the amended complaint describes Plaintiff's negligence claim as a “state cause of action” brought pursuant to the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. See Amended Complaint [2] at 11. Accordingly, in its prior order, the court held only that the MTCA damages limitation applied, in federal court, to plaintiff's state cause of action for negligence against the Port.

         Nevertheless, upon further review, it is apparent that the parties themselves have approached Plaintiff's negligence claim, not only as a state cause of action, but as one pursuant to general maritime law. (Albeit, the Port argues that Plaintiff has elected to proceed under either theory pursuant to the Mississippi Tort Claims Act.) In short, because the parties have briefed the issues before the court as if the Plaintiff has indeed asserted a general maritime claim for negligence in addition to, or in place of, a state law negligence claim, the court finds it necessary, to avoid manifest injustice, to address here whether the Port is entitled, on summary judgment, to an order limiting Plaintiff's compensatory damages and prohibiting punitive damages pursuant to the Mississippi Tort Claims Act should Plaintiff succeed on the merits of a general maritime negligence claim. See, In re Gharbi, 2011 WL 831706, at *10 (Bankr.W.D.Tex. Mar. 3, 2011), aff'd, 2011 WL 2181197 (W.D. Tex. June 3, 2011) (“The Court is aware that Plaintiff did not plead these first two issues in the initial complaint. However, Plaintiff raised these issues in Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (docket no. 24) and Plaintiff's Proposed Pre-Trial Order (docket no. 42) and argued the issues at the hearing August 26, 2010. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow for situations such as this, stating: When an issue not raised by the pleadings is tried by the parties' express or implied consent, it must be treated in all respects as if raised in the pleadings. A party may move-at any time, even after judgment-to amend the pleadings to conform them to the evidence and to raise an unpleaded issue . . . F.R.C.P. 15(b)(2).”).

         The Port's position

         The Port asserts that the state tort claims act, by its express terms, 1) applies to all tort suits, including those pursuant to general maritime law, against, among others, political subdivisions such as the Port (Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-1(g)), and 2) expressly limits compensatory damages to $500, 000, and prohibits punitive damages for commission of such of those torts as to which immunity is waived under the act, see Miss Code Ann. § 11-46-15. The Port further asserts that the state tort claims act damages limitation is not preempted by general maritime law. Finally, the Port asserts, by way of alternative argument, that because Plaintiff brought his general maritime negligence claim pursuant to the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA), he must, for that independent reason, proceed in accordance with its damage limitations.[1]

         The Plaintiff's position

         Plaintiff asserts, first, that a state law, such as that limiting damages against a political subdivision for torts of its employees under the MTCA, is irrelevant in a federal court action against that entity for violation of federal common law, unless, as an initial matter, the defendant subdivision qualifies as the state or an “arm of the state” entitled to 11th Amendment immunity. Plaintiff further asserts that the Port is not the state or an arm of the state as that phrase has been defined under applicable Fifth Circuit law. Consequently, Plaintiff asserts that the Port is not entitled to the damage limitations set forth in the MTCA. As discussed hereafter, this argument is unpersuasive because it puts the proverbial cart before the horse-it overlooks the fact that unless the ...


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