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Maritime Update: An Instructive Look at the Current State of Maritime Law

Bill Schwartz - 

Admiralty law has evolved since the days when it was entirely judge-made. Since the early 20th century, when Congress began legislating in this area, the role of the courts has changed from leader to follower, from promulgation to interpretation. As the United States Supreme Court has explained in its most recent opinions on the matter, the courts must now leave the development of novel claims and remedies to the legislatures.

In California, on October 30, 2020, three state court appellate judges not only ruled correctly in the case of PRICKETT v. BONNIER CORPORATION et al., they also provided to us an instructive review of the current state of maritime law as it pertains to novel claims for recovery.

The case arose from a movie-making accident. After her father was injured diving in the French Polynesia, Mira Chloe Prickett sued Bonnier Corporation and World Publications, LLC (collectively Bonnier) for compensatory and punitive damages under general maritime law. The trial court granted a judgment on the pleadings against her on the grounds that neither: (1) compensatory damages for loss of her father’s society, nor (2) punitive damages were available under general maritime law. In the appeal, the Court noted Ms. Prickett had not cited any admiralty authority which would allow a child to recover loss of society damages for a non-fatal injury to a non-seaman on the high seas. They concluded that without legislative authority or compelling reasons to do so, they would deny the appeal.

So why are we bringing this case to your attention? Because it is a very good analysis of where we are in the current state of maritime law when an argument is made for a novel cause of action. This California court of appeals performed, in our opinion, an excellent review of maritime law which is instructive to us all.

First, they noted in the Dutra Group v. Batterton, supra, __ U.S. __ [139 S.Ct. 2275] (Dutra) case, the Supreme Court held that punitive damages were not available for a maritime claim of injury owing to unseaworthiness. Although the United States Supreme Court decision in Dutra addressed the availability of punitive damages, it included a comprehensive discussion of the evolution of maritime law – in both its common-law (judge-made) and statutory (legislatively-made) forms – since the early 19th century.

In the course of its discussion of admiralty law, the Dutra court referred to two prior opinions, Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. (1990) 498 U.S. 19 (Miles), and Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend (2009) 557 U.S. 404 (Atlantic Sounding), which the court stated “governed” the Dutra issues. Observing that neither the Death on the High Seas Act nor the Jones Act allowed loss of society damages, the Miles court concluded, “The general maritime claim here alleged that [decedent] had been killed as a result of the unseaworthiness of the vessel. It would be inconsistent with our place in the constitutional scheme were we to sanction more expansive remedies in a judicially created cause of action in which liability is without fault than Congress has allowed in cases of death resulting from negligence. We must conclude that there is no recovery for loss of society in a general maritime action for the wrongful death of a Jones Act seaman.”

Atlantic Sounding held that punitive damages were recoverable in an action based on maintenance and cure. Maintenance and cure, another early judge-made doctrine, required a ship’s master to provide food, lodging, and medical care to a seaman injured while serving aboard a ship. This doctrine was developed to prevent a ship’s owner or captain from dumping an injured seaman at the nearest port and leaving him to fend for himself.

The Supreme Court in Dutra reaffirmed both cases. Miles and Atlantic Sounding “governed” Dutra, not because their individual circumstances resembled the circumstances of Dutra, but because the approach the court used in arriving at its decision in each of the former cases was the same approach it adopted in Dutra. The court explained how admiralty law changed once Congress began enacting statutes relating to maritime matters. In the early 19th century, there were no maritime statutes, and “‘seamen led miserable lives.'” Sailors had nowhere to turn for protection but to the courts. The courts, in turn, took a “paternalistic” view of their role in protecting seamen “‘against the effects of the superior skill and shrewdness of masters and owners of ships.'” The courts saw their role as placing a “humane and liberal” shield between ignorant and improvident sailors and ruthless and profit-driven ship owners and masters.

All this began to change, however, when Congress started legislating in the 1920’s with the Jones Act. Since then, several federal statutes have been enacted to protect maritime workers, including longshoremen, and states with harbors have enacted similar laws. As a result, the courts’ role has also changed. No longer the sole champions of sailors’ rights, courts now are careful not to tread on Congress’ toes; as the Dutra court stated, they seek to “maintain uniformity with Congress’s clearly expressed policies” and to avoid introducing “novel remedies contradictory to those Congress has provided in similar areas.” In Melville’s day, the courts made maritime law; now Congress leads and the courts follow. Our modern role recognizes the fact that, as Justice O’Connor put it for a unanimous court in Miles, “We sail in occupied waters.”

In Dutra, the court made it clear that Miles was the theme and Atlantic Sounding was the variation. Far from limiting or canceling out the Miles holding, Atlantic Sounding was a “gloss” on Miles rather than a departure from it. The Atlantic Sounding decision found that awards for punitive damages in maintenance and cure actions were a long-accepted remedy under general maritime law before the Jones Act. By contrast, there was no history of punitive damages awards in unseaworthiness claims, and so the court, constrained by Miles, declined to recognize “a new entitlement to punitive damages where none previously existed” in the Dutra decision.

In closing, this appeals court held that “…the United States Supreme Court has cautioned us not to get ahead of Congress in defining new maritime remedies, and we will abide by this admonition.”

In our opinion, for lawyers and non-lawyers, this case tells it like it is and will be for the foreseeable future. Unless Congress legislates rights or remedies, our Courts will be constrained in fashioning remedies for the maritime claims that come before them.


If you have any questions regarding this maritime matter, please contact Bill Schwartz at (504) 569-2900 or wschwartz@bhbmlaw.com.


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