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11th Circuit Approves Pro Rata Apportionment to Plaintiff and Intervenors of Attachment Costs

Posted in Marine Services, Maritime Contracts, Ports & Cargo Shipping

In the unpublished opinion of  Adams Offshore, Ltd. v. Blake Marine Group, No. 11-12753 (11th Cir. Apr. 27, 2012), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals adopted the Fifth Circuit’s suggestion in Beauregard, Inc. v. Sword Servs., L.L.C., 107 F.3d 351, 353 n. 8 (5th Cir. 1997), and affirmed the district court’s allocation of costs to each unsuccessful attaching party in proportion to the value that each party alleged was owed them by Oceanografia to the alleged value of all claims asserted against Oceanografia.  This decision addressed the infrequent scenario when significant expenses are incurred by a party in initially arresting/attaching the property, other creditors intervene in that suit, but the arrest/attachment of the property is subsequently vacated, resulting in there being no fund for which to pay the expenses of arrest/attachment and preservation of the property, more commonly referred to as custodia legis, literally expenses incurred “in the custody of the law.”

Oceanografia owned a modular diving system that had been installed on a vessel engaged in oil field work off the coast of Mexico.  Seizing on the opportunity to assert its claims against Oceanografia while the vessel and Oceanografia’s diving system were in Mobile, Alabama, Adams Offshore filed suit against Oceanografia and requested the attachment of the diving system under Rule B as security for its claims, alleged to be worth $7 million.  Thereafter, similarly situated creditors, Blake Marine and Cashman Equipment, intervened in Adams’ action, and asserted their respective claims of roughly $61 million and $1.7 million against Oceanografia.  Over one year after Adams had the diving system attached, the district court vacated the attachments of Adams, Blake and Cashman for equitable reasons.

During the time Oceanografia’s diving system was in the custody of the court, more than $200,000 in costs and expenses had accrued, including the Marshall’s fees, dockage, expenses to clear the diving system through customs, expenses to survey, oversee and remove the diving system from the vessel, storage and insurance, all of which had been initially borne by Adams as the first attaching creditor.  However, because the maritime attachments were vacated, there was no fund generated by the sale of Oceanografia’s property to pay the costs of attachment, much less the underlying claims of Adams, Blake and Cashman.

Local Admiralty Rule 6(c) for the Southern District of Alabama provided as follows:  “Intervenors under this rule shall be liable for costs together with the party originally effecting seizure on any reasonable basis determined by the court.”  S.D. Ala. Loc. Adm. R. 6(c).  The district court concluded that it was reasonable to assess the attachment costs against Adams, Blake and Cashman in proportion to the value that their respective claims bore towards the total of all claims asserted in the pleadings:  Adams – 10%, Blake – 87.5% and Cashman – 2.5%.  On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s assessment of costs, concluding that allocating costs based on the respective value of the parties’ claims was reasonable.  Id. at 5 (citing Beauregard, supra.)

The Adams Offshore decision provides several lessons.  First, it is reasonable to share the costs of an unsuccessful attachment among all unsuccessful maritime claimants, not just the claimant that filed suit first.  Second, the days of a “costs free lunch” appear to be ending for creditors who subsequently intervene in another party’s action after the arrest/attachment of the property has been initially perfected.  Third, attorneys should avoid the temptation to “overstate” the value of their clients’ claims in cases of maritime arrest/attachment because the amount alleged is one basis a court could utilize in apportioning the costs of an unsuccessful maritime arrest or attachment.