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Illinois Marine Towing, Inc. v. Barnick

July 30, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joe Billy McDADE United States District Judge


Before the Court is the Bankruptcy Appeal filed by Plaintiff, Illinois Marine Towing, Inc., on November 2, 2006, appealing Bankruptcy Judge Thomas L. Perkin's October 12, 2006 decision granting Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint. For the reasons that follow, the Bankruptcy Court's decision is AFFIRMED


The facts of this case are not in dispute and are taken directly from Judge Perkin's Order. On May 21, 2004, Defendant, Casey A. Barnick, operated a 17-foot pleasure boat while intoxicated. The boat struck the Motor Vessel Herman Crown, a ship owned and operated by Plaintiff, Illinois Marine Towing, Inc., ("IMT"). As a result of the collision, three passengers on Barnick's boat were injured and a fourth passenger was killed. Barnick subsequently pled guilty to Aggravated Operation of a Watercraft Under the Influence of Alcohol and was sentenced to a suspended 180 day term of imprisonment and 36 months probation.

A civil lawsuit ensued in which the victims of the accident filed suit against Barnick, IMT, and the operator of the M/V Herman Crown. IMT in turn sought indemnification from Barnick for any damages the victims may recover. Barnick subsequently filed for bankruptcy pursuant to Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code on October 14, 2005. IMT filed adversary proceedings on November 15, 2005 seeking a declaration that their claims against Barnick are not dischargeable pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(9). Barnick filed a Motion to Dismiss IMT's claim and Judge Perkins issued an Order granting the Motion and dismissing IMT's Complaint on October 12, 2006. IMT filed this appeal on November 2, 2006 [Doc. 1] and a brief in support on November 15, 2006 [Doc. 2]. A response was filed on December 4, 2006 [Doc. 3] and a reply was filed on December 12, 2006 [Doc. 4].

Title 11 U.S.C. § 523, as explained in more detail below, outlines various debts that are non-dischargeable. The type of non-dischargeable debt relevant here is debt arising from the drunken operation of a motor vehicle. While it is unnecessary to go through the entire legal posture of the parties in this case and in their other lawsuits, it is sufficient to note that IMT seeks to hold Barnick responsible for any damages it must pay to the injured parties as a result of Barnick's drunken operation of his motorboat. In Judge Perkins' thorough and considered opinion, he found that claims against Barnick would be dischargeable in bankruptcy. Judge Perkins determined that the statute was ambiguous with respect to the term "motor vehicle." After reviewing the statutory context, dictionary definitions, legislative history, and case authority, Judge Perkins determined that Congress did not intend for the term "motor vehicle" to include a motorboat. Thus, Judge Perkins concluded that IMT's Complaint seeking the opposite declaration must be dismissed as a matter of law.


This Court has jurisdiction to review the decision of the Bankruptcy Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a). District courts are to apply a dual standard of review when considering a bankruptcy appeal. The findings of fact of the Bankruptcy Judge are reviewed for clear error, while the conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. In re Yonikus, 996 F.2d 866, 868 (7th Cir. 1993); In re Ebbler Furniture and Appliances, Inc., 804 F.2d 87, 89 (7th Cir. 1986); see also, Bankruptcy Rule 8013 (West 1995). The legal issue before the Court is narrow: whether a debt that arises from a drunken motorboat accident is the type of debt that is not dischargeable pursuant to bankruptcy law.


In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must view a complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Williams v. Ramos, 71 F.3d 1246, 1250 (7th Cir. 1995). The Court must accept all well-pleaded factual allegations and draw all reasonable inferences from those facts in favor of the plaintiff. Richards v. Kiernan, 461 F.3d 880, 882 (7th Cir. 2006). A plaintiff is not required to plead extensive facts, legal theories, or to anticipate defenses. Massey v. Merrill Lynch and Co., Inc., 464 F.3d 642, 650 (7th Cir. 2006). However, a plaintiff must "provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief" that are "more than labels and conclusion [] [or] a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-1965 (2007) (citations and editing marks omitted). In particular, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 1965. As noted above, IMT seeks a declaration that Barnick's debts are non-dischargeable and encourages this Court to find that the term "motor vehicle" as used in title 11 U.S.C. § 523 includes within its definition a motorboat.

At the time that Barnick filed for bankruptcy,*fn1 Title 11 U.S.C § 523 provided:

(a) A discharge under section 727, 1141, 1228(a), 1228(b), or 1328(b) of this title does not discharge an individual debtor from any debt --


(9) for death or personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle if such operation was unlawful because the debtor was intoxicated from using ...

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