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Desilvio v. Prudential Lines Inc.

decided: February 8, 1983.

FRANK DESILVIO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
PRUDENTIAL LINES, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles H. Tenny, Judge, granting summary judgment for defendant-appellee Prudential Lines, Inc. on the ground of laches. Reversed.

Pierce, Winter and Pratt, Circuit Judges.

Author: Pierce

PIERCE, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff-appellant Frank DeSilvio appeals from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles H. Tenney, Judge, entered June 24, 1982, granting summary judgment for defendant-appellee Prudential Lines, Inc. (Prudential) on the ground of laches. We reverse.

Appellant, a longshoreman who is a citizen and resident of New York, alleges that he was injured on November 24, 1974 while working aboard appellee's ship, the S.S. Santa Barbara, which was then berthed at the 39th Street Pier, Brooklyn, New York. The accident allegedly occurred when appellant slipped and fell on loose coffee beans in a hatch cover wheel track, causing appellant to sustain various fractures and sprains, and to thereby become disabled and unable to work for over a year.

Also in 1974, Prudential wrote to the law firm of Zimmerman & Zimmerman requesting an unlimited extension of time within which to appear in all lawsuits then pending and all subsequent lawsuits between itself and clients of Zimmerman & Zimmerman. Prudential's letter proposed that the following language be used:

We hereby grant you an indefinite extension of time in which you may answer, appear or otherwise move in reference to any action served upon you in any municipal, city, state or federal court.

This stipulation may be withdrawn by us at anytime with reference to any case as to which we will notify you in writing.

Zimmerman & Zimmerman granted Prudential's request in a letter dated October 16, 1974, adopting Prudential's language almost word for word.

Thereafter, on July 2, 1976, DeSilvio, represented by Zimmerman & Zimmerman, commenced an action in the State Supreme Court, New York County, by service of a summons upon Prudential. The summons stated the name and address of plaintiff-appellant's counsel, the names of the parties, Prudential's address, the basis of venue, the date and place of the accident, and that the claim was for money damages resulting from personal injuries. The summons was apparently never followed by the service and filing of a complaint in that court.

This action was commenced in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on August 21, 1978, by the filing of a complaint coupled with service upon Prudential. Prudential moved pursuant to Rule 56, F.R.Civ.P., for summary judgment on June 27, 1979, on grounds that no triable issue of fact existed as to Prudential's alleged negligence. Judge Tenney denied this motion on January 16, 1980, and later set June 8, 1982, as the date for trial. On June 1, 1982, Prudential moved to dismiss the action alleging, inter alia, that the suit should be barred for laches. Judge Tenney granted summary judgment in appellee's favor, finding DeSilvio had been guilty of laches. DeSilvio appeals from this ruling.

The equitable doctrine of laches has immemorially been applied to admiralty claims to determine whether they have been timely filed. The Key City, 81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 653, 660, 20 L. Ed. 896 (1872); Hill v. W. Bruns & Co., 498 F.2d 565, 568 (2d Cir. 1974); Larios v. Victory Carriers, Inc., 316 F.2d 63, 65 (2d Cir. 1963). Determinations relating to a claim of laches ordinarily are left to the discretion of the trial court. Czaplicki v. The Hoegh Silvercloud, 351 U.S. 525, 534, 100 L. Ed. 1387, 76 S. Ct. 946 (1956); Gardner v. Panama R.R. Co., 342 U.S. 29, 30, 96 L. Ed. 31, 72 S. Ct. 12 (1951). These rulings may not be overturned unless the trial court has abused its discretion. Dickey v. Alcoa Steamship Co., 641 F.2d 81, 82 (2d Cir. 1981); Goodman v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 606 F.2d 800, 804 (8th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 446 U.S. 913, 64 L. Ed. 2d 267, 100 S. Ct. 1844 (1980). In analyzing whether a party is guilty of laches, a district court may not mechanically apply the local statute of limitations, Gardner, 342 U.S. at 30-31; The Key City, 81 U.S. at 660; Hill, 498 F.2d at 568, as "equity eschews mechanical rules; it depends on flexibility." Holmberg v. Armbrecht, 327 U.S. 392, 396, 90 L. Ed. 743, 66 S. Ct. 582 (1946). Moreover, the Supreme Court has recognized that "laches is not like limitation, a mere matter of time; but [is] principally a question of the inequity of permitting the claim to be enforced -- an inequity founded upon some change in the condition or relations of the property or the parties." Galliher v. Cadwell, 145 U.S. 368, 373, 36 L. Ed. 738, 12 S. Ct. 873 (1892).

Therefore, the court must balance various factors in determining whether laches exist. These factors have been well established by the courts. In Public Administrator of the County of New York v. Angela Compania Naviera, 592 F.2d 58, 63-64 (2d Cir. 1979), cert. dismissed, 443 U.S. 928, 100 S. Ct. 15, 61 L. Ed. 2d 897 (1979), this court set forth guidelines for the application of the doctrine of laches in an admiralty context:

The questions to be answered in the exercise of [the district court's] discretion are whether there existed satisfactory excuse for the delay in bringing the cause of action and whether allowing the action to go forward despite the delay would unfairly prejudice the defendant. These questions are to ...


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