Fifth Circuit Overturns Precedent Deeming Maritime Statute’s Time Bar Jurisdictional

The 1851 Limitation of Liability Act allows qualifying vessel owners to limit their liability after maritime accidents. See 46 U.S.C. § 30501 et seq. For vessel owners covered by this statute, liability for an accident generally cannot exceed the value of the vessel plus pending freight involved in the accident. However, this statute imposes a time limit on vessel owners. While a vessel owner may bring a civil action under the Limitation of Liability Act in a federal district court, “[t]he action must be brought within 6 months after a claimant gives the owner written notice of a claim.” Id. § 30511(a). Previously, the Fifth Circuit had held that this time bar was a jurisdictional rule. In re Eckstein Marine Serv., L.L.C., 672 F.3d 310, 316 (5th Cir. 2012) (holding that “a challenge to the timeliness of a limitation action is a challenge to subject matter jurisdiction”). But earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit held that a U.S. Supreme Court case implicitly overruled Eckstein and that the Limitation of Liability Act’s time bar is nonjurisdictional. In re Bonvillian Marine Serv., Inc., No. 20-30767, 2021 WL 5708449, at *5 (5th Cir. Dec. 2, 2021).

In re Bonvillian concerns an allision in the Mississippi River. On January 19, 2019, a Bonvillian vessel allegedly allided with a crew boat owned by Baywater Drilling and injured crew member Joseph Pellegrin, Jr. Pellegrin sued Bonvillian on August 23, 2019 in Louisiana state court. On December 16, 2019, Bonvillian filed a Limitation of Liability Act petition in the Eastern District of Louisiana against Pellegrin and Baywater Drilling. After finding Bonvillian’s action untimely under the Limitation of Liability Act, the district court applied Eckstein in dismissing the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). See In re Bonvillian Marine Serv., Inc., 502 F. Supp. 3d 1078, 1083-84, 1088 (E.D. La. 2020). 

On appeal, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed the district court. According to the panel, a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision—United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 575 U.S. 402—implicitly overruled Eckstein. In Kwai Fun Wong, the Supreme Court deemed time limitations in the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) nonjurisdictional because the statute lacked a “clear statement” on jurisdiction. Id. at 410. As the Supreme Court held, under a clear-statement standard, “most time bars are nonjurisdictional” claim-processing rules that did not “deprive a court of authority to hear a case.” Id.

Applying Kwai Fun Wong, the Fifth Circuit held that the Limitation of Liability Act’s six-month time bar is a nonjurisdictional rule. According to the court, there is no clear textual indication that the time bar was intended to limit courts’ subject matter jurisdiction: the statute “speaks only to a claim’s timeliness, not to a court’s power.” 2021 WL 5708449, at *5 (citation omitted). Accordingly, the court held that it was “obliged to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s implicit overruling of Eckstein” and that the statute’s time limitation is a “mere claim-processing rule which has no bearing on a district court’s subject matter jurisdiction.” Id. 

The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and remanded the case for further proceedings.