Possible Causes of Action Arising Out of Maritime Incidents
Generally, everyone has a duty to act with reasonable care. A breach of this duty often constitutes negligence, commonly forming the basis of personal injury, injury to property and wrongful death actions.
Under maritime law there is a duty covering the condition of the vessel called the duty of seaworthiness. This duty requires a ship owner to provide a seaworthy vessel. A vessel is typically considered unseaworthy when the vessel, or aspects connected to the vessel, are not reasonably fit for foreseeable use. Because this definition is so broad in its terms and depends on the nature of the vessel’s intended use, a careful examination of each circumstance is required to determine whether the vessel was unseaworthy when the incident occurred.
This duty cannot be delegated, therefore a ship owner always remains liable for breaching this duty. This means that a ship owner may be vicariously liable for the actions of any employees that impact the seaworthiness of the vessel.
Examples of Potential Unseaworthiness:
- Failure to discover and/or warn passengers or crew of hidden and dangerous defects on a vessel may constitute unseaworthiness in certain circumstances.
- The existence of faulty and/or unreasonably dangerous strjctjres or appliance(s) on the vessel,
- Failure to provide sailors or crew members, with a safe work environment, including supplying equipment and tools that are in a reasonably suitable condition for use in the course of employment.
Typically, the duty to provide a seaworthy vessel creates broader protections than general negligence law. For instance, unlike in negligence actions that usually require a showing that the defendant knew or should have known of the danger, a ship owner may be strictly liable for her failure to provide a seaworthy vessel even if she were unaware of the risk.
Thus, owner liability may attach even if the ship owner did not know of the defect, should not have known of the defect, and acted diligently in her attempt to maintain the seaworthiness of the vessel.
Failure to provide a seaworthy vessel can result in multiple causes of action against the ship owner.
Products liability actions are another category of causes of action that may be available in maritime incidents. General federal maritime law allows for product liability recovery, as does state common law. Therefore, often regardless of which area of law governs, a products liability action may be available.
Examples of Potential Maritime Products Liability Actions:
- Defective design and/or manufacture of vessel.
- Defective design and/or manufacture of component parts or equipment present on vessel.
- Defective design and/or manufacture of product brought on vessel that may contribute to the cause of the incident.
Products liability actions often share commonalities with a claim asserting unseaworthiness; both deal with strict liability and defects in the vessel and/or related items. But, unlike a seaworthiness claim, maritime products liability law largely arose through reference to state common law, or land-based, tort law. Additionally, as long as it does not conflict, the state common law regarding products liability may supplement controlling federal maritime law if jurisdiction is appropriate. Therefore, admiralty products liability requires an understanding of both federal maritime law and state common law to adequately bring a cause of action.
While the above analysis seeks to present a general overview of the potential avenues available in maritime incidents with unseaworthy vessels, these specific causes of action may differ based on various jurisdictional rules and types of law that apply. Therefore, prompt and specific analysis of your matter is imperative to determine whether unseaworthiness is present.
General Federal Maritime Law
Maritime law is one of the few areas of law where federal common law may still govern a cause of action. As will be explored below, Congress has enacted various statutes that supply methods of recovery and compensation for injury to person and/or property that occurs at sea. Although these statutes are comprehensive, they still do not completely occupy the field for all potential claims that may arise in these maritime incidents.
When a cause of action falls outside the scope of these federal statutes, federal common law or maritime law may work as a gap filler to govern unaddressed issues. Which federal law applies, or whether state common law ultimately governs, often depends on the operation of complicated legal doctrines dealing with federal or state jurisdiction.
These issues will best be determined based on a case by case analysis, but it can generally be understood that basic claims arising out of personal injury are available under both federal and state maritime common law, although there are some important differences. Therefore, the sufficiency and knowledge of your legal representative will have a large impact in successfully pleading your claim to garner a strategic application of federal or state common law.
Navigable v. Non-Navigable Waters
Generally, the location of the vessel when the incident occurred can be one of the determining factors regarding whether federal or state law will control. Which area of law applies is important because it can change many procedural and substantive elements of a claim. Therefore, identifying whether the vessel was in navigable or non-navigable waters when the incident occurred is potentially significant.
Overall, waters that are used to facilitate commerce between the states or foreign countries are considered navigable and are governed by federal law. In general, the high seas, bays, inlets, harbors and tidewaters are navigable waters. Conversely, waters that are landlocked within a state territory typically constitute non-navigable waters and are instead governed by state law. This represents a general rule. Whether a marine area is governed by state or federal law will require individual analysis.
The Jones Act
The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, grants sailors the right sue their captain or ship owner for monetary damages if their negligence caused or contributed to the sailor’s injuries. You may have the ability to bring a Jones Act claim if you are a seaman who has suffered a personal injury while in the scope of your employment. The definition of a qualified ‘seaman’ under the Jones Act is very broad and likely includes any mariner or sailor with an employment related connection to a vessel while it is in navigation.
The Jones Act differs from regular personal injury or workers’ compensation law in these key aspects:
- Sailors file suit against their employer or, by extension, the employer’s agents. It is important to note that a Jones Act suit cannot be brought against a third party, including injuries inflicted by a passenger or other unaffiliated person.
- Maritime insurance companies are involved, separate from auto insurance companies.
- It involves federal law, not state law.
- The severity of injuries are more serious, and therefore experts are usually required.
As a general principle, claims arising under federal law or statute normally require adjudication in a federal court due to federal preemption principles. Although the Jones Act is a federal statute, the Act contains a specific provision that allows the injured sailor to file in state or federal court. Therefore, should you and your legal representative elect to bring a claim under the Jones Act, doing so may provide key benefits including state court jurisdiction.
Savings to Suitors Clause
Established in the 1789 Judiciary Act, a plaintiff’s ability to seek a state common law remedy was reserved for admiralty or maritime actions. The Savings to Suitors Clause, now found in Section 1333(1) of Title 28 of the United States Code, essentially gives plaintiffs the choice of bringing their maritime-related claim in state or federal court. While ordinarily defendants may remove a cause of action from state court to federal court if it meets certain jurisdictional elements, the Savings to Suitors Clause carves out an exception to this general rule. Therefore, if a plaintiff is bringing a claim arising out of admiralty or maritime issues, they may enjoy the right to halt federal removal and continue to have their case heard in state court.
Under the terms of the Clause, a plaintiff must bring an action against a person or entity, referred to as in personam jurisdiction. Conversely, an action directly against property, for instance a lien against the actual vessel where the incident occurred, is not normally protected against federal removal by the Savings for Suitors Clause. Thus, if properly pled, this Clause protecting state court jurisdiction may permit for a much more convenient, expedited, and plaintiff-friendly process than regularly found in federal adjudication.
Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), 46 U.S.C. §§ 30301-30308, is an additional federal statute that allows for any person, not just employed sailors or crew members, to recover for a death that occurs due to wrongful act or negligence while at sea. The Act’s scope is limited to deaths that occur on vessels located more than three nautical miles from the shore.
DOHSA is purely a wrongful death statute, therefore by its terms it does not contain provisions for pain and suffering or other related actions that are often asserted in state law wrongful death actions. Happily, although DOHSA itself does not provide for these other causes of action, it does not preclude the ability to plead these actions under other federal or state common law.
Therefore, determining whether federal or state law also apply to support additional claims is often paramount to pleading a robust wrongful death recovery action per DOHSA. This determination requires a case by case analysis to truly determine which available supporting law is present, and this specific review will be necessary to provide a complete answer.
Acknowledging this, a brief exploration into federal maritime law and state common law, as detailed below, can shed some helpful insight into potential causes of action outside of federal statutory law.
State Maritime Common Law
The Supreme Court has held that state common law can govern causes of action that are not preempted by federal statutes. Largely, whether the cause of action is pled as a state-based claim or a federal-based claim determines which area of law controls. State common law and federal maritime law possess much of the same causes of action, but specific elements for establishing each claim may differ.
Additionally, state common law also allows for types of recovery unaddressed by federal statute or law. For example, under traditional federal maritime law there was no available cause of action akin to a state law wrongful death claim. Post the enactment of DOHSA, there was no federal cause of action for wrongful death actions that occurred more than three nautical miles from the territory of the United States.
Due in part to the harshness of this rule, the Supreme Court held in Yamaha Motor Corporation v. Calhoun (1996), that when a non-seaman is killed within state waters, state law remedies are available. This includes state statutory wrongful death actions, as well as survivor actions. It is important to note that this holding governs claims that arise out of an occurrence of wrongful death, and therefore typically does not include non-deadly general negligence actions.
Generally, a vessel is considered to be in state waters when it is within three nautical miles of the shore of the state. If the vessel is within state waters when the incident occurs, the claims may be heard in state court. Any state law claims are resolved with applicable state law while any accompanying maritime based claims will apply federal maritime law.
This remedy is not ordinarily available for seamen, also known as crew members; their claims are often controlled by the applicable federal law due to preemption rules.
Whether state common law may support or bolster a cause of action must be determined individually. This summary is merely intended to provide a general insight into the various aspects of maritime law that may affect recovery, including state common law. Thus, particular assessment of the issues surrounding each potential case is required to conclude proper action.
Federal Maritime Law
Examples of Causes of Action that Federal Maritime Law May Support:
- Negligent Entrustment
- Negligent Training and/or Supervision
- Negligence Maintenance of Equipment
- Negligent Operation of Maritime Facilities
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
- Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
- Wrongful Death (if not controlled by DOSHA or State Law)
- Failure to Warn
- Failure to Keep Apprised of Changing Weather Conditions
- Creation of a Dangerous Condition Aboard Vessel.
This is not an exhaustive list, and while many of these actions largely track the causes of action available in state common law, there are still a multitude of marked differences between federal maritime law and state common law. For instance, although loss of consortium actions are available in state common law negligence actions, they are not available under federal maritime law. Additionally, potential defenses to the causes of action vary under federal maritime law and state common law. Therefore, possessing legal representation that is competent to make strategic decisions surrounding the invocation of federal maritime law or state common law can result in crucial consequences for the success of your claim.
Limitation on Ship Owner's Liability Act
Maritime law also contains arcane and complicated legal precedent that may allow an owner to limit your recovery. One such law is the Limitation on Ship Owner’s Liability Act of 1851, 46 U.S.C.A. § 30505. Under this Act, once invoked by the owner of the Titanic himself, the owner of a ship may limited their liability to the value of the vessel and the freight it contains. Importantly, this limitation may not apply to actions that are due to the negligence or fault of the owner or the owner’s agents. Acting fast, prior to the owner’s filing of this limitation action may conserve your ability to recover more fully. Therefore, speedy contact of knowledgeable legal representation is often imperative for maintaining your entire potential claim.
Time is of the Essence
Generally, the law applies a burden of proof on a plaintiff, or claiming party, to succeed in their cause of action. This requires that the plaintiff present enough evidence to demonstrate that the defendant acted wrongfully and that they are entitled to recovery.
As plaintiff’s attorneys, we rely on a multitude of evidence to meet this burden. Therefore, the collection and preservation of such evidence that relates to your potential claim is incredibly important. With maritime incidents in particular, much relevant evidence is commonly destroyed due to natural forces that tend to be at play. Thus, when bringing a case arising out of maritime issues, preservation of any current evidence and collection of any additional evidence discovered in the future is paramount.
Should you be considering a personal injury action, please retain and protect all materials relating to the incident.