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In the Matter of the Complaint of

July 26, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy J. St. Eve, District Court Judge:


Third-party plaintiffs RQM, LLC ("RQM") and Brunswick Corporation, including its operating division, Brunswick Boat Group (together, "Brunswick") filed motions to strike third-party defendant Trace Ambulance, Inc.'s ("Trace") affirmative defense. (R. 88, RQM Mot.; R. 103, Brunswick Mot.) For the reasons below, the Court grants RQM and Brunswick's motions.


On March 12, 2010, Scot Vandenberg and Patricia Vandenberg filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against RQM, LLC ("RQM"), Brunswick Corporation, and Brunswick Boat Group (a division of Brunswick Corporation) (together, "Brunswick"). The Vandenbergs' lawsuit arises out of an incident that took place on September 1, 2009, during an event that Mr. Vandenberg's employer, Trace Ambulance, Inc. ("Trace"), sponsored on a motor yacht that it chartered from RQM. At that event, while the yacht was anchored in the coastal waters of Lake Michigan, Mr. Vandenberg fell from the yacht's stern top deck to its stern well deck and sustained serious injuries. Mr. Vandenberg brings claims against RQM and Brunswick for the injuries he sustained during the incident, and his wife claims damages for loss of consortium.

Seeking the protections provided in the Shipowners' Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30505 et seq, and in accordance with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Supplemental Admiralty and Maritime Claims Rule F ("Rule F"), RQM filed a timely Complaint for Exoneration From or Limitation of Liability in this Court on August 31, 2010. (R. 1.) The Court subsequently enjoined from further prosecution and litigation all other related matters, including the Vandenbergs' state court action. (R. 14.) On October 8, 2010, the Vandenbergs filed a Claim Pursuant to Rule F. (R. 24.) Both Vandenbergs bring negligence claims and strict liability claims against Brunswick, the yacht's manufacturer. Against RQM, Mr. Vandenberg brings an additional negligence claim and Patricia Vandenberg brings a loss of consortium claim. (Id.)

On February 3, 2011, RQM filed a third-party complaint ("RQM TPC") against Trace pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 14(c). (R. 73.) In its TPC, RQM brings admiralty or maritime claims under Rule 9(h) for contribution and indemnification. On March 14, 2011, Brunswick filed a similar third-party complaint ("Brunswick TPC") against Trace, bringing admiralty or maritime claims under Rule 9(h) for contribution and indemnification. (R. 86.)

Trace answered the contribution claim in both parties' third-party complaints, and raises an affirmative defense to limit its contribution liability to RQM and Brunswick to an amount not to exceed its liability under the Illinois Worker's Compensation Law. (R. 79, Trace Answer to RQM TPC, at 6; R. 91, Trace Answer to Brunswick TPC at 7.) Trace contends that an Illinois Supreme Court decision, Kotecki v. Cyclops Building Corporation, 146 Ill.2d 155, 586 N.E.2d 1023 (1992), mandates this limitation. RQM and Brunswick now move to strike Trace's affirmative defense to their third-party complaints, claiming that it conflicts with federal admiralty law.


Pursuant to Rule 12(f), the Court can strike "any insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f); Delta Consulting Group, Inc. v. R. Randle Constr., Inc., 554 F.3d 1133, 1141 (7th Cir. 2009). "Affirmative defenses will be stricken 'only when they are insufficient on the face of the pleadings.'" Williams v. Jader Fuel Co., 944 F.2d 1388, 1400 (7th Cir. 1991) (quoting Heller Fin. v. Midwhey Powder Co., 883 F.2d 1286, 1294 (7th Cir. 1989)). "Motions to strike are not favored and will not be granted unless it appears to a certainty that plaintiffs would succeed despite any state of the facts which could be proved in support of the defense." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Yet, "[i]t is appropriate for the court to strike affirmative defenses that add unnecessary clutter to a case." Davis v. Elite Mortgage Servs., 592 F. Supp. 2d 1052, 1058 (N.D. Ill. 2009) (citing Heller, 883 F.2d at 1295). "It is also true that because affirmative defenses are subject to the pleading requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, they must set forth a 'short and plain statement' of all the material elements of the defense asserted; bare legal conclusions are not sufficient." Id. (citing Heller, 883 F.2d at 1294; Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a); Renalds v. S.R.G. Rest. Group, 119 F. Supp. 2d 800, 802 (N.D. Ill. 2000)). District courts have considerable discretion under Rule 12(f). See Delta, 554 F.3d at 1141-42.


In its affirmative defense to RQM and Brunswick's contribution claims, Trace asserts that an Illinois Supreme Court decision limits its contribution liability to RQM and Brunswick to no more than the amount of its worker's compensation liability. See Kotecki, 146 Ill.2d 155. The sole issue raised in Kotecki was whether an employer, sued as a third-party defendant in a product liability case, could be liable for contribution in an amount greater than its statutory liability under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 48, par. 138.5 et seq. ("IWCA"). Id. at 156. The case specifically involved the interplay between two state laws: the IWCA and the Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act, Ill. Rev. Stat. 1989, ch. 70, par. 301 et seq. ("Contribution Act"), which provides, in relevant part, that "where 2 or more persons are subject to liability in tort arising out of the same injury to person or property . . . there is a right of contribution among them, even though judgment has not been entered against any or all of them." Seeking to "provide[] the fairest and most equitable balance between the competing interests of the employer and the third-party defendant," Kotecki, 146 Ill.2d at 165, the Illinois Supreme Court held that an employer could not be found liable for contribution in an amount that exceeded its exposure under the IWCA. Id. It adopted this rule from a Minnesota Supreme Court case, Lambertson v. Cincinnati Corp., 312 Minn. 114, 257 N.W.2d 679 (1977)).

RQM and Brunswick each ask the Court to strike Trace's affirmative defense on the ground that it impairs their rights under federal admiralty law by imposing a restrictive cap on their third-party contribution claims. (R. 88, RQM Mot. to Strike, at 2; R. 103, Brunswick Mot. to Strike, at 2.)*fn1

In its response briefs, Trace argues that it is too early to determine whether the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the underlying matter because "this case has not been completely removed from state court to federal court." (R. 95, Trace Resp. to RQM Mot. to Strike, at 2; R. 107, Trace Resp. to Brunswick Mot. to Strike, at 2.) Trace also contends that it is not yet clear whether federal admiralty law or state law should apply to this case. Trace may be conflating a jurisdictional argument with its choice of law argument*fn2 -- Trace's response briefs to RQM and Brunswick's motions primarily focus on choice of law matters, and Trace has not filed a motion to dismiss either party's third-party complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Nevertheless, because the Court must determine that it possesses subject matter jurisdiction on its own accord, see Cook v. Winfrey, 141 F.3d 322, 325 (7th Cir.1998) ("It is axiomatic that a federal court must assure itself that it ...

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