Maritime Defendants Now Have Right to Jury Trial in Louisiana State Court

Several years ago, the Louisiana Legislature passed Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1732(6), which effectively provided that only the plaintiff in a maritime matter filed in a Louisiana state court had the right to determine if the case would be tried by a judge or a jury. Maritime defendants no longer had the option to request a jury trial as did defendants in other civil matters in Louisiana. The reason behind the plaintiff-only choice was the fact that the maritime plaintiff has a similar choice in federal court. However, while such a designation is available to the plaintiff in federal court, the case would be tried before a federal judge, who is appointed for life, approved by the U.S. Senate, and supervised by a circuit court of appeal with similarly appointed judges from several states. The passage of Article 1732(6) allowed maritime suits filed in Louisiana state courts to be tried before a judge alone, who is elected locally every six years.

Apparently, the Louisiana plaintiff's bar perceived, correctly or incorrectly, that Article 1732(6) provided the plaintiff with some advantage over the maritime defendants, as the number of state court suits designated as nonjury increased greatly following the passage of the article. Challenges to the constitutionality of such a one-sided provision were unsuccessful in both state and federal courts. In 1993, the Coalition of Maritime Employers of Louisiana was formed to help repeal Article 1732(6). The CMEL supported a repeal bill in 1997, but that effort failed in the 1997 session. However, in the 1999 session, through the tremendous efforts of many Louisiana maritime employers, as well as the able lobbyists and Governor Foster, Article 1732(6) was repealed.

The repeal of Article 1732(6) will now allow maritime defendants, when sued in state court, to again be able to request a jury trial within the delays filed by the court. Unfortunately, the repeal will not be given retroactive effect and will only be applicable to causes of action "arising on or after the effective date" of the bill repealing the provision. Therefore, even if the lawsuit is filed after the effective date of the repeal, the maritime defendant will not have a choice of a jury trial in Louisiana state courts if the accident occurred prior to the effective date. Since there is a three-year statute of limitation in maritime cases, this means that Article 1732(6) will still affect certain cases for the next three years.

The retroactive application was an issue at the end of the 1999 session which nearly prevented the bill from passing because the Senate and House versions of the bill differed. The Conference Committee version, which disallowed the retroactive application, was approved on the last day of the session. The "effective date" of the bill will be the date it is signed by the Governor or 60 days after its passage if not signed or vetoed by the Governor. The bill was sent to the Governor for his signature on June 22, 1999. As of July 2, 1999, the bill had not yet been signed by the Governor, but there is little chance of a veto in light of the Governor's support for the same. Thus, any maritime claim arising from an accident which occurred prior to July 2, 1999, and possibly prior to August 21, 1999, if the bill is not signed earlier, will be governed by Article 1732(6) and only the plaintiff will have the choice of a jury trial in Louisiana state courts.

In any event, the successful navigation of the repeal of Article 1732(6) provides the maritime defendants with an even playing field in the Louisiana state courts. The defendant's ability to request a trial by jury in certain state courts will hopefully neutralize some of the power previously asserted by the plaintiffs in maritime suits filed in Louisiana.