Court Rules in Favor of Boat Owner Represented by Brais & Brais in a Dispute Concerning the Sinking of a Recreational Boat
Brais & Brais' Florida maritime attorneys successfully argued that a Federal Court can hear a breach of the warranty of workmanlike performance implied in an oral repair contract as well as a breach of marine bailment dispute concerning the sinking of a recreational boat that was entrusted to an engine repairer.
In December 2009, a recreational vessel owner entered into an oral contract with an engine repairer to fix the starboard engine of a 33' Chris-Craft sportfish named CJ. At the time of the contract, the vessel was connected to shore power at its home berth in the Worldwide Sportsman Marina located in Tavernier, Florida. The repairs began at Worldwide Sportsman Marina, but soon thereafter, the engine repairer requested the vessel be moved to a berth behind his house for his convenience. The owner consented to the vessel being moved, however, the repairer did not move the vessel behind his house as represented. Instead, he moved the vessel to his neighbor's house and failed to relay this information to the owner. When the repairer shifted the vessel, he failed to reconnect the shore power or monitor the vessel. During the repair project, the vessel began taking on water from the drive shaft's packing gland. The onboard bilge pumps kept up with the intruding water until the battery life expired. The vessel sunk at its moorings causing damage to its hull, machinery, appurtenances and the owner's personal property. Had the repairer reconnected the shore power or monitored the vessel, the CJ could have been saved.
Brais & Brais, on behalf of the owner, filed a complaint against the engine repairer for damages in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The complaint asserted claims for breach of the warranty of workmanlike performance implied in the oral repair contract as well as breach of marine bailment. The repairer moved to dismiss the owner's case on multiple grounds.
First, the repairer challenged the court's authority to hear the case. He argued admiralty jurisdiction was lacking because the CJ was incapable of transportation given its engine was dismantled at the time of the sinking. In order for the court to have admiralty jurisdiction, the CJ must be classified as a vessel. Federal law defines a "vessel" as, "every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water." Brais & Brais countered by arguing the test for jurisdiction is not whether the CJ is operational at its current condition but whether it was capable of transportation over water. Brais & Brais pointed out at the time the contract was formed, the CJ was floating at its home berth and the repairer even shifted the vessel to his neighbor's house using the vessel's propulsion system. The court agreed with our attorneys, determined the CJ is "vessel" for admiralty jurisdiction purposes and found it had authority to decide the dispute.
The repairer next argued the owner failed to state a claim for breach of workmanlike performance by asserting the owner, a corporation, failed to plead its agent entered into the contract on its behalf as well as the contract was not reduced to writing. The court rejected these arguments agreeing with Brais & Brais that there is no obligation to plead an authorized corporate agent entered into the contract. The court also agreed with Brais & Brais that maritime law does not require a repair contract to be written in order to possess a claim for breach of workmanlike performance.
This case is significant as it helps define a vessel for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction as well as recognizes a claim for breach of implied warranty of workmanlike performance in an oral marine repair contract. Click hear to read the order allowing Brais & Brais' client to continue with its breach of the warranty of workmanlike performance implied in an oral repair contract and breach of marine bailment claim.