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Rodgers v. Mammoth Cave National Park

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division

January 10, 2017

SANDRA RODGERS, as Administratrix of The Estate of Michelle A. Meredith and RONALD MEREDITH, as Administrator of The Estate of Donald R. Meredith PLAINTIFFS
v.
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA DEFENDANT

          GREG N. STIVERS JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          H. BRENT BRENNENSTUHL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the Court is the Plaintiffs' motion to amend their complaint, DN 13. The Defendants have responded in opposition at ¶ 20 and the Plaintiffs have replied at ¶ 22.

         Nature of the Case

         According to the Plaintiffs' Complaint (DN 1), on March 3, 2015, Michelle and Donald Meredith were traveling by automobile through Mammoth Cave National Park. The Green River runs through the park and the Green River Ferry transports vehicles across the river. Plaintiffs allege that the Merediths drove their vehicle onto the ferry but accidentally drove through the barrier on the opposite end, plunging into the river where they drowned.

         The Plaintiffs, representatives of the Merediths' estates, filed this action on March 2, 2016, citing jurisdiction under the Suits in Admiralty Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30901 et seq. or, in the alternative, the Public Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. § 31101 et seq. The complaint alleges that the Defendants' operation of the ferry breached a variety of duties owed to the Merediths as passengers.

         On November 9, 2016, the Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction (DN 12). Defendants argue in that motion that the Green River is not a navigable waterway for purposes of establishing admiralty jurisdiction at the location of the accident. As such, the Defendants contend the limited waivers of sovereign immunity in the Suits in Admiralty Act and Public Vessels Act do not apply in this case.

         Although Plaintiffs contend there is no connection with the Defendants' motion to dismiss, on December 1, 2016, they filed the subject motion seeking leave to file a first amended complaint. The amended complaint adds an additional jurisdictional basis under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b) (DN 13-1).

         Plaintiffs' Motion to Amend

         In order to maintain an action against the United States under the FTCA, a claimant must first have presented the claim to the appropriate federal agency and had the claim denied or no action taken by the agency within six months from the date of presentation. 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a). A claim is presented by way of Standard Form 95 or other written notification of the incident. 28 C.F.R. § 14.2(a). Exhaustion of administrative remedies is a prerequisite to instituting litigation seeking relief under the FTCA. McNeil v. United States, 5085 U.S. 106, 107 (1993).

         Plaintiffs state that, in order to preserve their option to amend the complaint to add claims under the FTCA, they served administrative claim forms SF-95 on the United States. They attached copies of the forms and proof of receipt as exhibits to the motion (DN 13-2 & 13-3). As six months have now elapsed with no responsive action by United States, Plaintiffs contend that they have exhausted their administrative remedy and are authorized to amend their complaint to assert a claim under the FTCA.

         The Defendants' Opposition to the Motion to Amend

         The Defendants do not contest that Plaintiffs submitted a claim to the United States Department of the Interior, that the Department of the Interior was the proper agency to which the claim should have been directed or that the Department has not made a determination within six months of filing. The Defendants oppose the motion to amend, however, because the claim was not submitted until after this litigation was commenced. Defendants point to the language of 28 U.S.C. 2675(a) which requires exhaustion of administrative remedies before litigation is commenced:

An action shall not be instituted upon a claim against the United States for money damages for injury or loss of property or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, unless the claimant shall have first presented the claim to the appropriate Federal agency and his claim shall have been finally denied by the agency in writing and sent by certified or registered mail. The failure of an agency to make final disposition of a claim within six months after it is filed shall, at the option of the claimant any time thereafter, be deemed a final denial of the claim for purposes of this section. The ...

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