Fifth Circuit Roles Back Seaman’s Entitlement to Punitive Damages

3367543296_1470ef5247_zThis article originally appeared in WorkBoat Magazine.

The December 2013 Legal Talk column addressed the very significant ruling a three judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in McBride v. Estis Well Service. That case signaled a major expansion in the law regarding semen’s entitlement to recover punitive damages under the general maritime law.  The availability of punitive damages had been extremely limited since the 1990 Supreme Court case of Miles v. Apex, which held that non-pecuniary damages, which would include punitive damages and similar non-economic type losses, were not recoverable by seamen, whose legal remedies are largely governed by the Jones Act.

Courts have chipped away at the scope of the Miles ruling since then, most notably by the Supreme Court itself in 2009 when the Townsend case recognized that a seaman could get punitive damages for his employer’s willful failure to pay maintenance and cure.  The McBride case took that holding a huge step further by allowing seamen to recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims arising under the general maritime law.

The McBride case, however, was recently reconsidered by the entire Fifth Circuit en banc, which reversed the previous ruling by the three judge panel.  Now, the rule in the Fifth Circuit is that Jones Act seamen have no cause of action for punitive damages for either negligence or unseaworthiness. The latest McBride ruling is in keeping with the general pronouncement of the Supreme Court’s Miles v. Apex case regarding the unavailability of non-pecuniary damages in Jones Act cases.

While this significant ruling reflects a trend followed by other federal appeals courts, this issue remains unsettled in some jurisdictions. The Supreme Court may once again have to take up the punitive damages issue to establish uniformity among all courts on this important aspect of maritime law.

Excellent image courtesy of Flickr user Andrew Magill.

Seaman Denied Recovery for Stress-Related Health Claim

Anyone who has ever worked in the marine industry knows that the physical requirements are demanding and the pressure to perform can be intense.  Regrettably, the nature of the business means that accidents, injuries and property damage are inevitable, no matter how well workers do their jobs.  Usually, the remedies available under the maritime law when such casualties occur are fairly well defined.  However, a recent case out of the U. S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that such remedies are not without limits.

The case of Skye v. Maersk Line involved a claim for money damages by the chief mate of the SEALAND PRIDE for heart disease and deteriorated health which he attributed to the excessive duties and prolonged work hours required of him by his employer.  Skye served on the SEALAND PRIDE for approximately eight years, during which he sometimes worked between 90 and 105 hours a week for 70 to 84 days at a time.  These demands of his job purportedly caused him fatigue, stress and lack of sleep, which resulted in hypertension and eventually disabling heart disease.

Skye sued Maersk Line for negligently imposing unreasonable working conditions that caused his failing health.  While a jury concluded that Skye could recover damages from Maersk Line under these circumstances, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and found that Skye was not entitled to any award at all.

In reaching this conclusion, the appeals court noted that not all work related injuries are compensable under the Jones Act, the federal statute that provides a seaman legal recourse against a negligent employer.  It explained that in order to prevail on such a claim, seamen’s injuries must be caused by the “negligent conduct of their employers that threatens them imminently with physical impact.”  The appeals court further determined that a seaman cannot recover for injuries caused only by work related stress because such stress is not a “physical peril.”  It acknowledged that Skye did, in fact, suffer physical harm; but the cause of that harm was not a recognized physical peril for which the employer could be held liable.  Consequently, the court found that Skye had no right of recovery against Maersk.

This important decision was rendered by a divided panel of judges on the 11th Circuit, which may signal further appeals of this claim or lead to more legal challenges in other cases where a maritime worker is injured on the job notwithstanding the absence of some perilous physical cause.

This article first appeared in Work Boat magazine.  It was also posted on September 1, 2014, at Work Boat’s website.

False Distress Call Results in Serious Criminal Penalties

In March 2012, an aircraft pilot falsely reported observing a fishing boat with four passengers in distress in Lake Erie.  In response to the distress call, the U. S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces launched a massive search and rescue mission that lasted over 21 hours.  Substantial costs were incurred by both agencies totaling over a half a million dollars.  During a subsequent investigation, the pilot admitted to the Coast Guard that his report of a boat in distress was fabricated.

The pilot was indicted and later pled guilty to making a false distress call, a felony under 14 USC §88.  In addition to a three month prison term and three years supervised release, the pilot was ordered to pay restitution to the U. S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces to the full extent of the expenses they incurred in the search and rescue mission.

Following the formal sentencing, the pilot appealed the assessment of “indirect costs,” such as general overhead that would have been incurred by the Coast Guard irrespective of its response to the false distress report.  He argued that such ordinary expenses were not “losses” contemplated by 14 USC §88(c).  He did not contest his liability for the cost directly attributed to his criminal actions, which included the actual expenses attributable solely to search and rescue efforts.

With little guidance from prior case law on this issue, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit (based in Cincinnati, Ohio) in United States v. Kumar gave a strict interpretation of the statute and found that it was not limited only to “losses” sustained by the Coast Guard, but rather provided for the recovery of all costs incurred because of the criminal defendant’s actions.  For this reason, the Court of Appeals found that the judgment against the pilot which included the full extent of the costs spent by the Coast Guard, including its indirect overhead expenses, was appropriate.  The appellate court further upheld the judgment requiring the defendant to similarly repay the Canadian Armed Forces.  This aspect of the criminal penalty was not specifically provided for by statute, but was permissible within the trial court’s discretionary sentencing authority.

Note: This article first appeared in WorkBoat magazine, and on WorkBoat’s website.

Dock Owners Liability

Boarding and disembarking from vessels. Without a second thought, mariners do it day in and day out – – most of the time without any problem.  Occasionally, however, accidents happen. Depending on where or how a slip, a trip or a fall occurs while transiting to or from a vessel, the potential liabilities can be subject to varying legal standards.

It is well settled under the general maritime law that a vessel owner has a fundamental duty to provide its crew members with a reasonably safe means of getting on to and off of the vessel. Just a slight breach of this duty can result in liability for the vessel owner. The duty owed to non-seamen is less onerous and is that of “reasonable care.”

But the maritime law does not impose any particular duty on a dock owner when it comes to safe ingress and egress to vessels.  That doesn’t mean, however, that a property owner cannot be held liable for accidents that occur on its dock, pier or wharf when someone is hurt while transferring to or from a vessel.  Rather, the property owner’s liability is governed by state law.  While the legal standards for dock owners can vary by state, liability is typically determined under general negligence principals.  State laws typically require that shore side facilities take reasonable precautions to prevent accidents and injuries to those who it knows or should anticipate will be using its dock to get on or off vessels. A recent First Circuit Court of Appeals case out of Massachusetts (Cracchiolo v. Eastern Fisheries, Inc.) recognized that the owner and leaseholder of a pier could be legally responsible for the fatal accident to a fisherman who slipped and fell on an icy area of their dock, which was described as “obviously hazardous.”

The routine nature of boarding and disembarking from vessels does not make that activity less risky to even the most experienced mariners. Because both maritime law and state laws impose legal obligations on vessel operators and property owners, careful attention should be given to the methods vessel personnel may use for ingress and egress to avoid accidents and mitigate liability exposure.

This article first appeared in WorkBoat Magazine.  The article can also be found here, on WorkBoat‘s website.