Seaman Can’t Arrest Oracle’s America’s Cup Yacht

Oracle Yacht crew. photo by Guilian Grenier, Team Oracle USA.
Oracle Yacht crew. photo by Guilian Grenier, Team Oracle USA.

New Zealand sailor Joe Spooner, whose contract as a “grinder” for the America’s Cup champion Oracle Team USA has failed in his attempt to seize the 45-foot catamaran for unpaid wages.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero refused Monday to grant Spooner’s request to have federal marshals “arrest” the boat in San FranciscoBay.  Under Admiralty law, a maritime lien placed on a boat for payment of debts requires an “arrest” of the vessel so that it does not leave port until the debt is paid.

Spooner, a crewman on Oracle Team USA during its America’s Cup wins in 2010 and 2013, alleged his contract called for $25,000 a month in pay until seven days after the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda, with a bonus of six months’ pay if Oracle defended the title.  But Spooner was let go in January 2015.

He sought $750,000 in total damages.  The boat is owned by billionaire Larry Ellison, head of Oracle.

Spooner initially invoked a maritime lien for seaman’s wages as well as maintenance and repairs on the vessel but later changed his theory.  He went back the an 1897 U.S. Supreme Court statement in The Resolute case allowing a suit to collect money for breach of a maritime contract by a tugboat sailor.

Spero said the issue in Spooner’s case is whether a seaman can claim a maritime lien for damages owed for wrongful discharge in breach of a contract.  Spero ruled that wrongful discharge of a seaman’s employment contract can support a lien.

But unfortunately in Spooner’s case, Spero found there was no wrongful discharge.  The contract with the Oracle team allowed either side to terminate the contract with two weeks notice, he said.

He found no basis for an arrest of the vessel 4 Oracle Team USA.

This is the second lawsuit filed against Oracle Racing since December when another grinder Matt Mitchell sued for $68,000 he claimed he spent on legal fees to fight claims he helped illegally alter a catamaran used in the warm-up for the 2013 America’s Cup.

Case: Spooner v. Multi Hul Foiling AC45 Vessel 4 oracle Team USA, No. 15-cv-692



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