offshore-drilling

By Tod J. Everage

An offshore helicopter crash resulted in four lawsuits filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana that were eventually consolidated for all purposes. Three of the four plaintiffs properly asserted that their cases fell under admiralty jurisdiction and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(h). FRCP 9 governs the pleading of special matters, and subsection (h) addresses admiralty or maritime claims. The practical effect of pleading Rule 9(h) and designating the claims under admiralty jurisdiction is that it removes the right to a jury trial. Although the preferable method for electing to proceed in admiralty is an express designation invoking Rule 9(h), an express designation is not necessary as long as the complaint includes a simple statement identifying the claim as an admiralty or maritime claim. If the plaintiff fails to invoke the court’s admiralty jurisdiction and pleads an alternative ground for federal jurisdiction that grants the defendant a right to trial by jury, then such plaintiff may not revoke a jury demand without complying with FRCP 39.

As stated, three out of four consolidated plaintiffs adequately pleaded Rule 9(h) and the governance of admiralty jurisdiction. One plaintiff failed to plead Rule 9(h) but did allege that the court’s jurisdiction was provided by “admiralty jurisdiction and substantive general maritime law, 28 U.S.C. 1333, and pursuant to 33 U.S.C. 905(b).” Several defendants demanded jury trials in response to this fourth complaint. The fourth plaintiff eventually amended his complaint to plead 9(h). The three other plaintiffs then moved to strike all jury demands, seeking instead to try their cases to Judge Barbier. They begged the court not to punish them for the fourth consolidated plaintiff’s failure to adequately plead Rule 9(h).

The issue examined was whether the fourth plaintiff sufficiently identified his action as one in admiralty such that defendants had no right to demand a jury in their answers. Judge Barbier found the jurisdictional allegation quoted above inadequate for those purposes. “Something more than the fact that Plaintiffs happened to assert alternative claims under general maritime law therefore was required to indicate that Plaintiffs wished to proceed in admiralty.” Also, because plaintiff plead alternative grounds for jurisdiction that allowed defendants a right to a jury, and the defendants timely made such a demand, the revocation of that right falls under FRCP 39.

According to FRCP 39, once a jury demand has been made, a court may move the action to its nonjury docket only with the consent of the parties or upon determining that no right to jury trial actually exists. Because defendants had a right to a jury trial when they made their demand, the Court found that FRCP 39 was not satisfied, and denied the plaintiffs’ motion to strike.

Because some of the Plaintiffs’ claims must be tried to a jury, the Court held that all of them should. The Court cannot serve as the factfinder for the OCSLA claims without violating Defendants’ 7th Amendment right to trial by jury. “Importantly, Plaintiffs lack a countervailing constitutional right to a nonjury trial for their admiralty claims; it is custom, rather than the Constitution, that provides for nonjury trials for maritime or admiralty claims.” Additionally, the Court declined to split factfinders where the plaintiffs and the claims are so intertwined and arise from a single incident. At least for now, each defendant will get a jury trial on all claims thanks to the inattention of one plaintiff, including those defendants who had no right to request a jury trial.

See LeBlanc v. Panther Helicopters, No. 14-1617, 2015 WL 350285 (E.D. La. Jan. 26, 2015) (Barbier).