Captain's Cove marina in Bridgeport, Conn.
Captain’s Cove marina in Bridgeport, Conn. (bridgeportct.gov)

An alcohol-fueled brawl on a dock in a marina near the Long Island Sound does not fall within a federal court’s admiralty jurisdiction, a federal appeals court has held.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the owners of a boat involved in the incident cannot invoke admiralty law’s limitation on tort liability for incidents at sea, in a case where the fight took place among recreational visitors on and around a permanent dock surrounded by navigable water.

The decision means that Sapna Tandon and Robert Doohan may be exposed to liability in excess of the $285,000 value of their boat, the Up and Over, for the 2010 melee at the Captain’s Cove marina in Bridgeport, Conn.

Tandon and Doohan had several guests on board the 39-foot fiberglass powerboat on May 28, 2010, when they docked by the Cove’s marina restaurant and were joined inside for food and drinks by another guest, Ryan Ulbrick.

Meanwhile, Frank Genna and two companions arrived by boat and moored at the Cove’s South Dock, a floating dock that sits in a fixed location and is accessible only by water. They took a water taxi over to the restaurant.

After eating and drinking, both parties left at about the same time. As as Tandon and Doohan and their guests boarded the Up and Over, one of their passengers fell into the water and suffering a bleeding scalp wound. Genna and his company began laughing, and Up and Over passengers started yelling what the court said were “presumably unfriendly comments in response.”

The Up and Over left the dock, as did the water taxi carrying the Genna company, but the parties’ versions of events differ from there. Tandon claimed she asked Doohan to pull the boat over and moor so she could look at their passenger’s head wound, but Genna alleged the Up and Over chased the water taxi, with Up and Over passengers yelling and screaming at him and one of them hurling a beer bottle in his direction.

The two boats pulled up at South Dock, and a fistfight broke out. One of the Up and Over passengers punched Genna, who fell face down into the water. Ulbrick claimed Genna landed face down and appeared unconscious, but Genna, in his lawsuit, claimed he was physically held underwater and suffered injuries from the lack of oxygen, including “cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, hypoxic encephalopathy resulting in permanent brain damage and multi-organ failure.”

Genna and his wife, Donna Genna, sued Captain’s Cove in state court for his injuries and loss of consortium under theories of negligence, negligent supervision, reckless dispensing of alcohol and a final claim under Connecticut’s Dram Shop Act.

Captain’s Cove then filed a third-party complaint against Tandon, Doohan and their passengers, including Ulbrick.

Tandon and Doohan in turn filed in federal court a petition for exoneration or limitation of liability up to the $285,000 value of the Up and Over. Under the Limitation of Liability Act, first passed in 1851 to encourage ship-building and investment, the liability of a vessel’s owners is limited to the value of the boat and its pending freight.

An Extension of Land

Connecticut District Court Judge Janet Hall dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in 2012, finding that the fight with Genna took place primarily on the South Dock, which should be considered an extension of land because it was permanently in a fixed location, and she therefore lacked admiralty jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1333.

Tandon and Doohan took their case to the Second Circuit, where oral argument was heard on Jan. 13 by Second Circuit Judges Robert Katzmann, Debra Ann Livingston and Southern District Judge Andrew Carter, sitting by designation.

Writing for the panel Monday, Katzmann said the court, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co, 513 U.S. 527, (1995), first asks “whether the alleged tort meets the location test: that is whether it occurred on navigable water or was caused by a vessel on navigable water.”

In Grubart, the U.S. Supreme Court found admiralty jurisdiction where a construction company with a crane on a barge in the Chicago River to drive wooden pilings into the riverbed allegedly cracked the wall of a freight tunnel, causing water to cascade into the tunnel and flood buildings in downtown Chicago.

Under Grubart, Katzmann said, the “location test” courts apply the “connection test,” asking “whether the general type of incident involved has a potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce, and whether the general character of the activity giving rise to incident bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.”

Here, he said, while it’s difficult to resolve the “location test” because Genna was struck on the dock and knocked into the water, the “connection test” was met, “as this type of incident does not have a potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce.”

“First, a fistfight on and around a dock cannot immediately disrupt navigation,” he said.

He contrasted the facts of the Up and Over case with others where the Supreme Court has found admiralty jurisdiction, such as when a fire on a boat at a dock spread to other boats in Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990), and the court held the incident “had a sufficiently significant relationship to traditional maritime activity to sustain admiralty jurisdiction.”

Here, however, “a fistfight on a dock cannot immediately damage nearby commercial vessels,” he said.

Katzmann cautioned that the circuit was only considering fights on permanent docks and not on docks that move relative to shore or fights aboard boats themselves.

“A fight on a vessel may distract the crew from their duties, endangering the safety of the vessel and risking collision with others on the same waterway,” he said. “If a fight injures someone on a vessel that is at sea, moreover, that vessel may be forced to divert from its course to obtain medical care for the injured person.”

Finally, he said “the class of incidents we consider here involves only physical altercations among recreational visitors, nor persons engaged in maritime employment.”

James Mercante, partner at Rubin Fiorella & Friedman argued for Tandon and Doohan.

Lawrence Brennan, partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker argued for Ryan Ulbrick.

“The court’s decision here clearly draws a line between cases that are best litigated in state court and those subject to the constitutional admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts,” Brennan said Wednesday.

The state action will now move forward.