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United States District Court for the District of Delaware Granted Defendants’ Motion to Establish Maritime Law as the Applicable Substantive Law in an Asbestos-Based Personal Injury Action Occurring Aboard Naval Vessels.

Dumas v. ABB Group
No. 13–229–SLR–SRF, 2014 WL 2514492, at *1 (D. Del., June 4, 2014)

by Sarah M. Grago, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (
For more information, contact Paul N. Farquharson at (410) 576-4742.

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In Dumas v. ABB Group, the District Court of Delaware held that maritime law applied to Plaintiff’s asbestos-based personal injury action. Plaintiff filed the initial complaint in the Superior Court of Delaware alleging various harms due to asbestos exposure during his employment with the U.S. Navy. Defendants removed the case to federal district court by way of “federal question” jurisdiction as the claim concerned the federal officer removal statute. Disagreeing as to what substantive law should apply, the parties requested, and the court granted, leave to file legal memoranda supporting their positions. Plaintiff, Arthur Dumas, contended that Virginia law should apply because the majority of his asbestos exposure transpired during his service at the Virginia base. In contrast, Defendants argue that maritime law should govern. While it is unclear whether the majority of the alleged exposure occurred at the shipyards or on the water, both parties agree that the harm occurred while Plaintiff was aboard naval vessels.

The court began with a choice of laws analysis. Although it noted that federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction must usually apply the substantive state law of the forum state, in this case, Virginia; it also warned that application of state law would be inappropriate should the matter “sound in admiralty.” If the case sounded in admiralty, federal maritime law would apply. To discern whether the case “sounded in admiralty,” the court employed the locality and connection tests. Only if the underlying products liability claim satisfied both tests would the case be considered to ‘sound in admiralty’ and thus merit the application of maritime law.

First, the court applied the location test. The court acknowledged that the test was used to pinpoint where the harm alleged in the tort claim occurred. To satisfy the test, the tort must have occurred on navigable water or, if on land, it must have been caused by a vessel on navigable water. The court found guidance in a factually similar case before a Pennsylvania court where the court concluded that “the locality test is satisfied as long as some portion of the asbestos exposure occurred on a vessel on navigable waters.” Conner v. Alfa Laval, Inc., 799 F.Supp 2d 455, 466 (E. D. Pa. 2011). It found additional instruction in a Supreme Court broad interpretation of “navigable waters” that considered a ship to be on navigable waters even when docked at a shipyard. Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358 (1990). As aforementioned, both parties agreed that Plaintiff’s alleged exposure occurred while he was aboard naval vessels, either at sea or docked at different shipyards. Because “navigable waters” has been interpreted to include shipyards, Plaintiff’s claim satisfies the test regardless of whether the majority of the exposure happened at sea or while docked at the shipyard.

Next, the court looked to the connection test. The court explained that the connection test required the court to consider two elements. First, the court must assess the general features of the underlying incident to evaluate whether the incident has a “potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce;” and second, the court must assess whether the “general character” of the activity which gave rise to the incident has a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.”

In considering whether the case satisfied the first prong of the connection test, the court noted that the analysis looks to “potential effects, not to the particular facts of the incident.” Here, the court considered the underlying incident to be “injury to workers on Navy ships on navigable waters allegedly caused by defective parts,” or “exposure to allegedly defective products on or around Navy ships on navigable waters.” The court found that either categorization of the incident could have a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce. Specifically, the court suggested that the incident could create unsafe working conditions, cause labor shortages on ships, or even hinder the Navy’s ability to protect commercial ships at sea. Moreover, the court found that the alleged injury posed many potential threats to maritime commerce; therefore, the claim met the first prong of the connection test.

Next, the court applied the second part of the connection test whereby it analyzed whether the general character of the activity that caused the incident demonstrated a substantial connection to traditional maritime activity. This prong, like the first prong, also required that the court focus on the general nature of the activity rather than specific traits. Looking through a general lens, the court identified the activity that caused the incident to be the “manufactur[ing] of products for use on vessels” including boilers, pumps, valves, gaskets, and packing and insulation products. Given that these products are necessary to the creation and maintenance of vessels utilized in maritime commerce, the court found a substantially strong relationship existed between the instigating activity and traditional maritime activities.

Finally, the court rejected the Plaintiff’s contention that it should use the four-factor test set forth in Oman v. Johns-Manville Corp., 764 F.2d 224 (4th Cir. 1985). The court explained that the Supreme Court had implicitly rejected the four-factor framework for cases when determining whether maritime law applied. Grubat v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 544-45 (1995)(applying the location and connection tests to assess whether maritime law applied where the case involved land based parties and injuries).

Thus, the court found that Plaintiff’s exposure occurred during a sea-based activity that was substantially related to traditional maritime activities and as such warranted the application of maritime law. The court granted Defendants’ motion to establish maritime law as the applicable substantive law.