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In re Complaint of Rainy Lake Houseboats, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

June 18, 2015

In the Matter of the Complaint of Rainy Lake Houseboats, Inc., for Exoneration from, or Limitation of, Liability.

Brian N. Toder, Esq., Chestnut Cambronne, PA, counsel for Plaintiff, Cross-Defendant, and Counter-Defendant Rainy Lake Houseboats, Inc.

Jason M. Stoffel, Esq., and Timothy W. Waldeck, Esq., Waldeck Law Firm, P.A., counsel for Defendant, Cross-Claimant, and Counter-Claimant Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church.

John P. Brendel, Esq., and Sylvia Ivey Zinn, Esq., Brendel & Zinn, Ltd., counsel for Counter-Claimant Susan Anderson and Cross-Defendant Scott Anderson.


DONOVAN W. FRANK, District Judge.


This matter is before the Court on Rainy Lake Houseboats, Inc.'s ("Rainy Lake Houseboats") Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 34.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the motion.


I. The Parties

Rainy Lake Houseboats is a Minnesota corporation that owns, maintains, and operates a fleet of approximately twenty-eight Skipperliner houseboat vessels on Rainy Lake, near Voyageur's National Park. ( See Doc. No. 39 ("Dougherty Decl.") ¶ 1.)

Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church ("HELC") is a church located in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. (Doc. No. 37 ("Dawson Decl.") ¶ 9, Ex. 7 ("HELC's Answer") ¶ 3.) HELC has a youth ministry program that organizes youth trips. (Id. ¶ 5; Doc. No. 23 ("HELC's Statement of the Case") at 1-2.)

Scott Anderson and Susan Anderson (the "Andersons") are the Trustees and parents of Decedent Briggs Anderson. (Doc. No. 24 ("Andersons' Statement of the Case") at 1.)

II. The Hope Youth Trip

In the spring of 2013, HELC Youth Pastor and Pastoral Assistant, Allan Westby ("Westby"), planned and organized a youth trip that was to take place in Voyageurs National Park from July 29, 2013 through August 1, 2013 on two houseboats rented from Rainy Lake Houseboats (the "Hope Youth Trip"). (Doc. No. 45 ("Stoffel Decl.") ¶ 4, Ex. 2 ("Westby Decl.") ¶¶ 1-2, 4.) Westby, HELC Pastor Jon Olson ("Olson"), and Jodi Knutsen ("Knutsen") were the designated chaperones for the Hope Youth Trip. (Westby Decl. ¶ 11; Stoffel Decl. ¶ 5, Ex. 3 ("Olson Decl.") ¶¶ 1-2; HELC's Statement of the Case at 1.) Briggs Anderson, a minor, was among the participants on the Hope Youth Trip. (HELC's Answer ¶ 9; Andersons' Statement of the Case at 1.)

On July 29, 2013, the Hope Youth Trip group (the "HELC group") arrived at Rainy Lake. (Westby Decl. ¶ 8; Olson Decl. ¶ 6; HELC's Statement of the Case at 1.) Upon arrival, the HELC group proceeded to check in with Rainy Lake Houseboats, which involved finalizing payment and signing the boat rental agreement ("Bare Boat Charter Agreement"). (Westby Decl. ¶ 8; Olson Decl. ¶ 6; Dawson Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. 1 ("Bare Boat Charter Agreement") at 1.) The Bare Boat Charter Agreement provides in relevant part that: "During the period of this agreement the Bare Boat Charterer shall have full and exclusive command, control, use, possession and navigation of the vessel." (Bare Boat Charter Agreement at 2.) "Charterer" is defined as "the person signing this agreement" ( id. ), and it is undisputed that Westby signed as "Bare boat charterer" on the Bare Boat Charter Agreement ( see Westby Decl. ¶ 22; Dawson Decl. ¶ 3; see also Bare Boat Charter Agreement at 1).

During the check-in process, Rainy Lake Houseboats provided the HELC group with the Houseboat Instruction Manual and the Houseboats Briefing Instructions. (HELC Statement of the Case at 1; Westby Decl. ¶ 8; Olson Decl. ¶ 6; see also Stoffel Decl. ¶ 9, Ex. 7 ("Houseboat Instruction Manual"); Stoffel Decl. ¶ 7, Ex. 5 ("Houseboats Briefing Instructions").)

After checking in, the HELC group loaded the two houseboats with their belongings and gear. (Stoffel Decl. ¶ 6, Ex. 4 ("Schroeder Decl.") ¶ 6.) Once the houseboats were loaded, a Rainy Lake Houseboats employee, Jakob Ettestad ("Ettestad"), met with Olson, Westby, and an 18-year-old attendee of the trip, Jordan Schroeder ("Schroeder"), and provided them with instructional briefing regarding the use and operation of the houseboats. (Westby Decl. ¶¶ 9-10; Olson Decl. ¶ 7.)

The parties dispute the substance and duration of the instructional briefing. Rainy Lake Houseboats asserts that the briefing was comprehensive and lasted approximately forty-five minutes in duration. (Doc. No. 38 ("Ettestad Decl.") ¶¶ 5-6; Doc. No. 47 ("Zinn Aff.") ¶ 7, Ex. F ("Ettestad Dep.") at 33.) Rainy Lake Houseboats contends that during the course of the briefing, Ettestad clearly communicated to Westby and the other adults that, on any vessel, the generator must not be operated while passengers or crew are swimming because of the discharge and danger of carbon monoxide. (Ettestad Decl. ¶ 7.) Rainy Lake Houseboats further contends that at the end of the briefing, Ettestad gave the adults another verbal warning about the dangers of carbon monoxide and had Westby read and sign the Houseboats Briefing Instructions to acknowledge that he understood the danger of running a generator while someone is swimming. (Id. ¶ 8; see also Houseboats Briefing Instructions.)

HELC, on the other hand, asserts that that the briefing instructions focused on general information and lasted between five and ten minutes in total. (Westby Decl. ¶¶ 14, 29-30; Olson Decl. ¶¶ 11, 24-25.) HELC asserts that Westby and Olson were not given adequate warning of the dangers of carbon monoxide associated with use of the houseboats rented to them, including the danger of swimming while the engine or generator were running. (Westby Decl. ¶¶ 35-36; Olson Decl. ¶¶ 29-30.) HELC further asserts that based on the instructions, Westby and Olson understood that the generator should only be turned off at nighttime. (Westby Decl. ¶ 19; Olson Decl. ¶ 16.) Although Westby does not dispute signing the Houseboats Briefing Instructions and initialing the carbon monoxide warning line, Westby asserts that he was provided no verbal warning about the generator, the engine, or carbon monoxide when he was given the Houseboats Briefing Instructions to acknowledge and sign. (Westby Decl. ¶¶ 22, 24, 25.)

After the briefing, the HELC group navigated the houseboats to their campsite location on Rainy Lake where they moored and began preparing for the evening. (Id. ¶ 32; Olson Decl. ¶ 26; HELC's Statement of the Case at 2.) During downtime before the evening meal, Briggs Anderson was swimming near one of the houseboats while the generator was running. (HELC's Answer ¶ 10; HELC's Statement of the Case at 2.)

At some point while swimming, Briggs Anderson was rendered unconscious. (HELC's Answer ¶ 10; Dawson Decl. ¶ 11, Ex. 9 ("Rainy Lake Houseboats' Answer") ¶ 5.) Briggs Anderson passed away later that evening. (HELC's Answer ¶ 10; Ettestad Dep. at 45-46.) The Andersons assert that Briggs Anderson passed away as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. (Dawson Decl. ¶ 7, Ex. 5 ("Andersons' Letter"); see also Dawson Decl. ¶ 6, Ex. 4 ("Autopsy Report").)

III. Procedural History

On February 3, 2014, Scott Anderson, individually and as a Trustee of Briggs Anderson, filed a wrongful death action against HELC and Rainy Lake Houseboats in Otter Tail County District Court. (Dawson Decl. ¶ 8, Ex. 6.) HELC and Rainy Lake Houseboats filed respective answers in the state proceeding. (Dawson Decl. ¶¶ 9, 10, Exs. 7, 8.)

On May 1, 2014, Rainy Lake Houseboats commenced the present action in federal court seeking exoneration from or limitation of liability for all claims arising from the July 29, 2013 incident on Rainy Lake. (Doc. No. 1 ("Rainy Lake Houseboats' Compl.").) Specifically, Rainy Lake Houseboats claims: (1) "exoneration from liability for any loss, damages or injury occasioned or incurred by reason of the incident involving the death of Briggs Anderson"; or alternatively, (2) "the benefit of limitation of a vessel owner's liability under Title 46, United States Code, § 30505, and of the various statutes, rules and regulations supplemental thereto, and amendatory thereof." (Id. ¶¶ 14, 16.)

On May 14, 2014, this Court issued an Order staying the Otter Tail County proceeding pending the resolution of the above-entitled matter. ( See Doc. No. 7.)

On May 15, 2014, the Clerk of Court issued a Notice of Complaint for Exoneration from, or Limitation of, Liability in response to Rainy Lake Houseboats' Complaint. (Doc. No. 8.) The Notice of Complaint provides that: "[a]ll persons having a claim arising out of the July 29, 2013 incident must, no later than June 25, 2014, file a claim as provided by Rule F of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims with the Clerk of Court"; and "[a]ny claimants who desire to contest plaintiff's right to exoneration from, or limitation of, liability must, in addition to filing and serving a claim, ...

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