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The plaintiffs suing over the May 2000 collapse of Pier 34 in Philadelphia — which claimed the lives of three nightclub patrons and injured 35 others — scored a significant victory last week when a federal judge refused to issue an immediate stay of all litigation in the Pennsylvania state courts in favor of federal maritime law. The decision by U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. focused on a request by a single defendant — J.E. Brenneman Co. — that could still have a profound effect on how and where all of the personal injury lawsuits are litigated. Brenneman’s lawyer, Edward V. Cattell of Hollstein Keating Cattell Johnson & Goldstein, argued that maritime law should apply because it was hired pursuant to a “marine construction contract” to perform necessary repair work on the pier, and because it performed that work in the mid-1990s with the use of a crane barge. After several dozen lawsuits were filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Brenneman filed suit in U.S. District Court under the Shipowners’ Limitation of Liability Act, seeking to limit or exonerate any of its possible liability. Under the Limitation Act, Brenneman argues that its liability should be limited to the value of the barge, or about $130,000. In June 2001, Yohn stayed all of the state court proceedings against Brenneman. But in a later motion, Brenneman asked Yohn to expand the stay order to include all of the parties — including the owners and operators of the pier — effectively shutting down the state court proceedings. Now, Yohn has rejected that plan, finding that “neither the Limitation Act nor the Anti-Injunction Act empowers this court to stay these proceedings.” Instead, Yohn decided to put off for now the decision of whether Brenneman is entitled to limitation of its liability under maritime law, and to allow the state court litigation to continue uninterrupted. Yohn found that while maritime case law gives a judge in his position the discretion to issue an expanded stay, “I am not persuaded to exercise that discretion at this time.” “Exercising my jurisdiction now offers neither immediate benefit nor harm to [Brenneman],” Yohn wrote. “Because discovery is likely to continue for some time and is proceeding in state court in the same manner as it would proceed in this court, [Brenneman's] fears should be abated,” Yohn wrote. By contrast, Yohn said, granting Brenneman’s motion “drastically curtails the state court plaintiffs’ rights as preserved by the Saving to Suitors Clause; namely, the right to proceed in a legitimate forum of their choosing and the right to jury trial.” Yohn said that if he ever does decide to expand the stay, “it would be prudent to do so upon a complete record rather than at this stage of the proceedings. . . . I see no reason to blindly jump the proverbial gun.” The two lead plaintiffs’ lawyers — Thomas R. Kline of Kline & Specter, and Robert J. Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky — hailed Yohn’s ruling as a wise rejection of an attempt to deprive the state courts of jurisdiction. Mongeluzzi said Brenneman’s motion was premised on a misunderstanding of the plaintiffs’ claims and that the evidence will show that the lawsuits should not be governed by maritime law. “This case has nothing to do with anything that happened on a barge,” Mongeluzzi said. Instead, Mongeluzzi said, the plaintiffs allege that the negligence occurred long before Brenneman ever performed any repair work on the pier. After an earlier partial collapse of the pier in 1994, Mongeluzzi said, the pier’s owners were presented with three options. The first and most expensive option was to reconstruct the entire pier by driving all new piles. The second option called for only some of the piles to be replaced. The third and least expensive option, he said, called for a securing of the pier with no new piles. One expert, Mongeluzzi said, has described the three options as “the Rolls Royce plan, the Cadillac plan and the beat up old Toyota plan.” In the end, Mongelluzi said, the defendants opted for the beat up old Toyota. Mongeluzzi said that although Brenneman filed the federal action on its own, it had the backing of the other defendants. “This was nothing more than a sham to get us into a federal court forum — which the defendants favor. It’s heartening that Judge Yohn hasn’t taken the bait,” Mongeluzzi said. Kline echoed those sentiments, saying, “It’s no secret that the defendants have angled every way possible to derail the state court litigation.” Although the federal litigation is still going forward, Kline said he is confident that Brenneman will not be able to meet the legal test for winning a limitation of its liability to the cost of the barge. Under maritime law, Kline said, the limitation cannot apply if the company was “in privity,” meaning that company management was aware of or participated in the conduct at issue in the suit. The reason for the law, Kline said, was to protect ship owners from liability for events that occurred at sea over which they had no control. “This is a piece of 19th century tort reform,” Kline said. But in the collapse of Pier 34, Kline said, the evidence shows that management-level employees played key roles. As a result, he said, even if Yohn ultimately rules that maritime law applies, he is not likely to impose the law’s liability limits.

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