Maritime Damages

Maritime and admiralty law encompasses a unique set of rules, concepts and procedures governing navigation and commerce by water. divMaritime and admiralty law provides benefits far beyond the traditional workers' compensation.

As discussed in the article entitled "Seaman's Entitlement to Maintenance, Cure and Unearned Wages," a vessel owner is responsible for paying maintenance, cure and unearned wages relative to an injury or illness occurring during a seaman's service. Beyond these benefits, an injured seaman who establishes either negligence or unseaworthiness is entitled to claims for damages similar to other injury victims. Death claim benefits, on the other hand, are more limiting than shoreside wrongful death and survival claim damages. Under admiralty law, joint and several liability is applied. Coats v. Penrod Drilling Corp., 61 F.3d 1113, 1996 A.M.C. 1 (5th Cir. 1995). The Court in Coats, after an historic and lengthy discussion, stated that:

... the general maritime law applies the century-old doctrine of joint and several liability ... [and] the doctrine of joint and several liability is crystallized in the Jones Act context as well, ....
Id. at 1134.

Personal Injury Claims

Under general maritime law, a tortfeasor may be liable for the following damages:

  1. Reasonable past and future medical expenses;
  2. Lost earning capacity, including both past lost wages and diminished future earning capacity;
  3. Pain and suffering (a non-pecuniary loss);
  4. Pre-judgment interest and
  5. Found

An element of damages commonly overlooked is found. Found is defined as; [A]n amount a seaman suing in tort may include in his loss of earnings claim for the value of the meals and lodging he would have received if he had remained employed as a seaman. Barnes v. Andover Co. L.P., 900 F.2d 630, 642-43 (1990).

Entitlement to found requires that a seaman actually incur the expenses for food and lodging. Similar to a general maritime law negligence action, a Jones Act seaman may recover against the tortfeasor for past lost wages, future lost earning capacity and past and future medical expenses not covered by cure. A Jones Act seaman may also recover damages for physical pain and suffering as well as mental anguish. Pre-judgment interest is unavailable for a Jones Act seaman.

The Court in Pfeifer v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 678 F.2d 453, 460, 1982 (3rd.Cir. 1982), vacated on other grounds, 462 U.S. 423 (1983), described in detail maritime damages as follows:

[A seaman] is entitled to reimbursement for his loss of earnings, past and prospective; for any impairment of his earning capacity; for medical expenses incurred and to be incurred; and for any other economic loss he may have sustained or is likely to sustain. He is also entitled to redress for his physical injury, including the effects thereof, such as pain, suffering, mental anguish, discomfort, and inconvenience. If the injuries are permanent and result in an impairment of earning capacity, he may recover damages for such impairment, including (but not limited to) his probable loss of future earnings. Damages resulting from the impairment of earning capacity and the probable loss of earnings must be measured on the basis of life expectancy at the time of injury. The award must be based upon the probable pecuniary loss reduced to its present net worth. The injured worker is also entitled to compensation, again based on life expectancy at the time of injury, for the physical and mental effects of the injury on his ability to engage in those activities which normally contribute to the enjoyment of life, including, for example, his avocations. The specific elements of such an award necessarily depends upon the proofs. There are no precise criteria for which these elements may be evaluated, but they are measured to the same extent as pain, suffering, and mental anguish.

Full compensation for lost prospective earnings is most difficult, if not impossible, to attain if the court is blind to the realities of the Consumer Price Index and the recent historical decline of purchasing power. Thus, if we recognize, as we must, that the injured worker is entitled to reimbursement for his loss of future earnings, an honest and accurate calculation must consider the stark reality of inflationary conditions. The language in Pfeifer provides an outline for evaluating and presenting an injured seaman's damages.

The Jones Act and general maritime law do not allow recovery for loss of consortium or society. Smith v. Trinidad Corp., 992 F.2d 996 (9th Cir. 1993). The children of injured seamen also have no cause of action for loss of society under the general maritime law. Dickey v. Odeco, 598 So.2d 1259 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1992)

Recent court decisions have expanded the concept of injury and have permitted recovery for emotional distress which is unaccompanied by physical injury. Chan v. Society Expeditions, Inc., 39 F.3d 1398 (9th Cir. 1994); Yballa v. Sea-Land Services, Inc., 937 F. Supp. 1428 (D. Hawai'i 1995). In these decisions, the Ninth Circuit outlined a "zone of danger rule" which required "unconscionable abuse" and "severe emotional injury." Yballa at 1437. The Court also concluded that mere verbal harassment without threat of physical harm does not permit recovery for emotional distress.

Special damages are discounted for the effects of income taxes and present value (see, e.g., Trevino v. United States , 804 F.2d 1512 (9th Cir. 1986)), however, the majority rule, which is followed by the Ninth Circuit, holds that awards for future non-pecuniary losses are not discounted to present value.

Death Claims

Beneficiaries of maritime death claims have the following potential remedies:

  1. The Death on the High Seas Act ("DOHSA");
  2. The Jones Act; and
  3. The general maritime law

When handling a maritime death claim, careful review and analysis is required in order to determine the application of these remedies and the elements of damages which are available.

The DOHSA provides statutory benefits for all deaths of any person caused by wrongful acts occurring on the high seas. 46 U.S.C sec. 761. The "high seas" are defined as beyond a marine league from the shore of any state, or the District of Columbia, or the territories or dependencies of the United States.

Under the DOHSA, an action may be maintained by the decedent's spouse, parent, child or dependent relative for pecuniary losses. Each class member may recover regardless of the existence of any other class members. Pecuniary losses include funeral expenses, loss of financial support, value of lost services, and value of probable inheritance. The decedent's children may recover for loss of nurture, care, guidance, support and training. Although recovery may be made jointly under the Jones Act and DOHSA, general maritime law claims are preempted by the DOHSA.

Under the Jones Act, a death claim may be brought against the seaman's employer. Beneficiaries include the seaman's surviving spouse and children, parents, and dependent next of kin. The beneficiaries are successive and the existence of a prior class precludes recovery on behalf of subsequent class members. Damages under the Jones Act include pecuniary losses and recovery for the decedent's pre-death conscious pain and suffering, medical expenses and loss of income.

A general maritime law death claim may be brought in conjunction with a Jones Act death claim when the seaman's death occurs in the territorial waters of a state. Pecuniary losses which may be recovered include loss of support, loss of services, funeral expenses, loss of nurture, loss of inheritance, loss of fringe benefits, and pre-death pain and suffering, medical expenses and loss of wages.

In 1990, the Supreme Court attempted to address some of the confusing issues surrounding maritime death claims when it decided Miles v. Apex Marine Corp ., 498 U.S. 19, 1991 A.M.C. 1 (1990). The court ruled in favor of the maritime industry and Miles held that under general maritime law, beneficiaries' recovery is limited to their pecuniary losses and, more importantly, that Jones Act damages for death of a seaman are restricted to pecuniary losses. Widows, children and parents are now denied recovery based on loss of consortium and loss of society.

Punitive Damages

Although rarely ever applied, historically, punitive damages were generally accepted in general maritime law as a possible element of damages where the defendant's conduct qualified as a "gross and wanton outrage." Protectus Alpha Navigation Co. v. North Pac Grain Growers, 767 F.2d 1379, 1385, 1986 A.M.C. 56, 63 (9th Cir. 1985). On the other hand, punitive damages were never a part of the Jones Act. Miller v. American President Lines, Ltd ., 989 F.2d 1450, 1455, 1993 A.M.C. 1217, 1221 (6th Cir. 1993).

The Miles decision, supra, has been interpreted to hold that punitive damages are not recoverable in unseaworthiness actions. Consequently, it is unlikely that an award of punitive damages will be permitted under any circumstances for claims involving death or injury to a seaman. See Glynn v. Roy Al Boat Management Corp ., 57 F.3d 1495, 1995 A.M.C. 2022 (9th Cir. 1995).

This article provides only a basic outline of the damages available for maritime actions based upon injuries and death to seamen. More thorough and careful research and consultation should be undertaken in pursuing maritime injury and death claims.