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Sovereign immunity not abrogated in boat case

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//July 21, 2019

Sovereign immunity not abrogated in boat case

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//July 21, 2019

Sovereign immunity bars a plaintiff’s simple negligence claim arising from the capsizing of a municipal police boat. Neither the federal savings clause in 28 USC § 1331(1) nor general maritime law pre-empts the state doctrine of sovereign immunity.

The circuit court properly denied plaintiff Pridemore’s motion to strike a plea in bar filed by defendants, the city of Norfolk and Hryniewich, the police department employee who operated the vessel.

But when the court denied Hryniewich’s summary judgment motion, it did so by applying state law when federal maritime law should have been applied instead.


Pridemore was on a police boat owned by the city of Norfolk. His employer upgraded and repaired the vessel. Hryniewich, a police department employee, was operating the vessel when it capsized during a sea trial. Pridemore sued the city and Hryniewich, alleging simple and gross negligence, and sought damages for injuries sustained during the incident.

Defendants’ plea in bar asserted that sovereign immunity barred the claims. The court rejected Pridemore’s arguments that the federal saving clause and general maritime law allowed his suit. The court denied his motion to strike. Later, the court sustained the plea in bar as to the city and the simple negligence claims against Hryniewich. Those claims were dismissed with prejudice. The court allowed Pridemore’s gross negligence claim against Hryniewich to go forward.

Hryniewich moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was immune under federal maritime law. The court denied the motion. The parties filed interlocutory appeals.

Motion to strike

The circuit court correctly denied Pridemore’s motion to strike because neither the federal savings clause in 28 USC § 1331(1) nor maritime law abrogates the Commonwealth’s sovereign immunity. The savings clause allows litigants to bring in personam maritime claims in state court. It does not confer state-court jurisdiction. Instead, it provides states with concurrent jurisdiction to hear maritime claims as long as the state court does not change maritime law or provide in rem remedies.

Under Virginia law, sovereign immunity is jurisdictional in nature. Maritime law does not abrogate this immunity. “As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, ‘States retain immunity from private suit in their own courts.’ Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 754 (1999). This sovereign immunity ‘is beyond the congressional power to abrogate by Article I legislation.’ … Therefore, the savings clause does not abrogate or supersede the Commonwealth’s sovereign immunity.”

Summary judgment

When denying Hryniewich’s summary judgment motion, the circuit court should have applied federal maritime law.

“Hryniewich contends that the circuit court’s ‘principal error was in failing to recognize that maritime qualified immunity, unlike sovereign immunity, is a non-jurisdictional affirmative defense that applies equally in state or federal court.’ … Hryniewich asserts that the defense of qualified immunity ‘has a long history in the federal common law and the general maritime law, which have long recognized immunity for public officials who, while performing their duties in good faith, nevertheless commit unintentional torts.’

“Pridemore agrees that Hryniewich may assert a qualified-immunity defense in a maritime-tort action in a state court but argues that the standard for evaluating an immunity defense is ‘whether the officer was plainly incompetent.’ According to Pridemore, qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ …

“Therefore, the parties agree that federal qualified immunity is available as a defense under federal maritime law and that a state court having jurisdiction over a maritime law claim must apply substantive maritime law.”

Remanded for application of the correct standard.

Pridemore v. Hryniewich. Record No. 180373. (Order) July 11, 2019. (Appeal from Norfolk Circuit Court) Lawrence Steven Emmert, Keith John Leonard, David Harlen Sump, William Andrew McNinch Burk, Mark Travic Coberly, Jennifer Lynn Eaton, James Long Chapman, Darius Kobi Agyeman Davenport Sr., John Becker Mumford Jr. for the parties. VLW 019-6-046. 8 pp.

VLW 019-6-046

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