Case of the Day: Vitol S.A. v. Capri Marine, Ltd.

The case of the day is Vitol S.A. v. Capri Marine Ltd. (D. Md. 2010), an action to enforce an English judgment. In 2000, the vessel Alambra was involved in a “marine pollution incident” in Estonian waters. Capri owned the Alambra, and Vitol had chartered the vessel. After the incident, Vitol sued Capri in the Commercial Court, part of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court, alleging breach of the charterparty, unseaworthiness, and other claims. The English court’s judgment awarded Vitol more than $9 million in damages.

Vitol then sued Capri and two alleged alter egos, Primrose Shipping Co. and Spartacus Navigation Corp., in the District of Maryland, because the M/V Thor, a vessel owned by Spartacus and managed by Primrose, was then docked in Baltimore. Pursuant to Rule B of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims, Vitol, acting ex parte, obtained an order permitting it to attach the Thor. Primrose and Spartacus then deposited $9.3 million with the court as security, and the Thor was released. Primrose and Spartacus moved to vacate the attachment and dismiss the complaint. (Capri also asked the High Court to enjoin Vitol from pursuing its alter ego claims, but the High Court refused). Primrose and Spartacus made two arguments. First, they argued that the Maryland court lacked jurisdiction, because the case was not within the admiralty jurisdiction. Second, they argued that Vitol had not stated a claim for alter ego liability on which relief could be granted.

Ordinarily, an action to enforce a foreign judgment is not within the admiralty jurisdiction. Because actions to enforce foreign money judgments, unlike actions to confirm foreign arbitral awards, arise under state rather than federal law, unless there is some special basis for jurisdiction (admiralty, or more commonly, diversity of citizenship), the federal courts lack jurisdiction of such cases altogether. Here, it seems that the court would not have diversity jurisdiction, because all of the parties are aliens. So it was admiralty jurisdiction or nothing.

It was agreed that the case would come within the US court’s admiralty jurisdiction if the underlying case was within the English court’s admiralty jurisdiction. (I think this point would be worthy of more attention, but it didn’t seem to be in dispute here). Primrose and Spartacus argued that because the English case was heard in the Queen’s Bench rather than the Admiralty Court, the case was not an admiralty case. But the judge held that as a matter of English law, a maritime case could properly be brought in the Commercial Court without losing its maritime character.  Thus the judge held that he had admiralty jurisdiction.

The judge also rejected another technical argument, namely, that because Vitol was trying to enforce a foreign judgment, the attachment was post-judgment rather than pre-judgment and thus not permitted under Rule B. The judge pointed out that the attachment was pre-judgment with respect to the action before it, namely, the action to enforce the foreign judgment. This seems plainly correct.

Despite these procedural victories, though, Vitol was unable to persuade the court that in had adequately alleged grounds for alter ego liability, and accordingly it vacated the attachment and dismissed the complaint without prejudice, with leave to file an amended complaint.

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