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In re Complaint of Salas

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 12, 2019

Complaint of Julio Salas and Monica Salas As owners of the vessel “AZ 5368 BG” and her engines, tackle, appurtenances, etc., Plaintiffs-in-Limitation, For Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability.


          Honorable John J. Tuchi, United States District Judge.

         At issue is Claimants Brandi Hart and Nathan Preuit's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs-In-Limitation's Complaint for Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability (Doc. 14, Mot.), which Claimant Wayne Ramos joined (Doc. 15). Plaintiffs-In-Limitation (“Plaintiffs”) Monica Salas and Julio Salas filed a Response (Doc. 21, Resp.).


         On August 6, 2017, Plaintiffs loaned their 24-foot fiberglass “Carrera” motorboat (“the Vessel”) to their daughter, Nicole Salas Jahnke. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 4). Jahnke and five friends, including Claimants Hart and Preuit, used the Vessel on Lake Havasu for a day of recreation. (Compl. ¶ 5.) Claimants contend that, at all relevant periods of the outing, Jahnke was driving the Vessel. (Mot. at 2-3.)

         Upon the group's return to the marina around 9:23 p.m., another speedboat approached-a 27-foot Eliminator Daytona watercraft (“Eliminator”) owned by Claimant Karen Rea and her husband Henry Rea. (Compl. ¶ 5; Doc. 18, Answ. ¶ 5.) The Eliminator was operated by Henry Rea. (Compl. ¶ 5; Answ. ¶ 5.) Plaintiffs allege the Eliminator was traveling at around 50 miles per hour and was unlighted. (Compl. ¶ 5.) Plaintiffs also allege that Jahnke attempted evasive action but was unable to avoid a collision. (Compl. ¶ 5.) Hart and Preuit agree that Jahnke did in fact attempt evasive action, but only after Preuit shouted at her to warn her of the oncoming Eliminator. (Mot. at 3.) Hart and Preuit also allege that Jahnke had consumed alcohol at some point during the outing. (Mot. at 2.) The Eliminator and the Vessel collided, ejecting and seriously injuring several passengers, including Hart and Preuit. (Compl. ¶5, Mot. at 3.) Henry Rea was killed, and the Eliminator sank. (Compl. ¶ 5.) All of the passengers boarded the Vessel and Jahnke operated it back to the marina, where emergency personnel were waiting. (Compl. ¶ 5.)

         Plaintiffs filed their Complaint for Exoneration from or Limitation of Liability on February 6, 2018. (Compl.) As owners of the Vessel, they seek to either exonerate or limit their liability under 46 U.S.C. § 30511 (“Limitation Act”). They allege that “the net value of the Vessel at the end of the voyage on August 6, 2017 did not exceed [$2, 500].” (Compl. ¶ 14.) As required by the statute, some claimants[1] notified Plaintiffs that they would commence actions against them, and Plaintiffs allege those suits will seek more than $2, 500. (Compl. ¶ 21.) Plaintiffs seek to exonerate their liability, or failing that, limit it to $2, 500. Hart and Preuit now move to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint. (Mot.)


         A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) may attack either the allegations of the complaint as insufficient to confer upon the court subject matter jurisdiction, or the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact.” Renteria v. United States, 452 F.Supp.2d 910, 919 (D. Ariz. 2006) (citing Thornhill Publ'g Co. v. Gen. Tel. & Elecs. Corp., 594 F.2d 730, 733 (9th Cir. 1979)). The burden of proof is on the party asserting jurisdiction to show that the court has subject matter jurisdiction. See Indus. Tectonics, Inc. v. Aero Alloy, 912 F.2d 1090, 1092 (9th Cir. 1990).

         When analyzing a complaint for failure to state a claim for relief under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the well-pled factual allegations are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cousins v. Lockyer, 568 F.3d 1063, 1067 (9th Cir. 2009). A plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Legal conclusions couched as factual allegations are not entitled to the assumption of truth, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 680 (2009), and therefore are insufficient to defeat a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. In re Cutera Sec. Litig., 610 F.3d 1103, 1108 (9th Cir. 2010).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Claimants Hart and Preuit seek to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint on two grounds. Claimants first argue that Plaintiffs fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted because “Plaintiffs fail to plead any facts to support the clear recitation of the elements necessary to satisfy a claim under the Limited Liability Act.” (Mot. at 6.) Claimants also move to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that Plaintiffs failed to prove that the accident occurred in navigable waters. (Mot. at 7-8.) The Court turns first to this threshold matter of jurisdiction.

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Federal district courts have jurisdiction over “[a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction.” 28 U.S.C. § 1333. As explained in H2O Houseboat Vacations Inc. v. Hernandez, the Ninth Circuit applies a two-prong test of “location and connection” to determine whether “an alleged tort involving a pleasure craft . . . forms the proper basis for maritime tort subject matter jurisdiction.” 103 F.3d 914, 916 (9th Cir. 1996).

         The first prong of the test requires that the incident occurred on navigable water. Id. The Ninth Circuit has clearly established that Lake Havasu is a navigable waterway. Id. Claimants cite to the Code of Federal Regulations to refute this conclusion, but their citation is inapposite. (Mot. at 8.) The regulation states that the waters of Lake Havasu within Arizona, “except the portion within Havasu Lake National Wildlife Refuge” are “navigable waters . . . designated as State waters for private aids to navigation.” 33 C.F.R. § 66.05-100. Claimants do not establish that navigable waters somehow become unnavigable if they are also “State waters for private aids to navigation.” Furthermore, Claimants admit that the incident occurred inside the Wildlife Refuge but make no argument that the exception of that area from the regulation means that the Refuge is also excluded from the ...

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