There is nothing more worrisome to a cruise line in a personal injury case than the potential of a punitive damages award. For years it was believed by the cruise lines that punitive damages were not awardable to passengers under maritime law. A Florida federal court recently clarified punitive damages are alive and well in maritime law and indeed awardable in passenger personal injury claims. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief history of punitive damages in the maritime law context and to show how the availability of punitive damages has been treated by the courts.
This Lollie v. Brown Marine Services case represents the first time a Florida Federal appellate court looked at the issue of whether non-pecuniary damages are awardable in maritime law. Non-pecuniary damages include loss of society, loss of consortium, loss of companionship, loss of love and affection, loss of comfort, grief and mental anguish. In this case the wife of an injured seaman brought a claim against her husband's employer for the non-pecuniary damages of loss of consortium. The Eleventh Circuit held that neither the Federal Jones Act governing seaman injuries nor general maritime law authorizes recovery for loss of society or consortium in personal injury cases.
At approximately 2:45 on September 22, 1993, a towboat was traveling north on the Mobile River pushing a load of six loaded barges toward a destination some three hundred and fifty miles upriver. Early in the voyage, a heavy fog settled on the river obscuring the towboat captain's vision. Unable to see that captain mistakenly veered off the main river into a tributary. Unaware that he veered off course, the captain continued to search for a place to secure the towboat and barged until the fog lifted. While this task was being undertaken, an object appeared on the towboat's radar screen which the captain believed to be another vessel to which he could secure his vessel. That object was in fact a railroad bridge. As the captain maneuvered the towboat toward the object, the barges in tow struck a bridge support causing a portion of the railroad track to become misaligned. Soon after, a passenger train derailed while attempting to traverse the damaged section of rail. Three locomotives, two passenger coaches, a crew dormitory car, and a baggage car, tumbled into the water, resulting in the death of forty seven persons on the train, numerous personal injuries, and extensive property damage to the train and bridge.
This disaster caused the filing of over a hundred personal injury and wrongful death suits. Since the negligent action occurred on "navigable waters" the court concluded that admiralty law, as opposed to state law, applied to the lawsuits. The issue before the court in Sunset Limited was whether punitive damages are awardable in maritime cases. Extending its no non-pecuniary damages holding in Lollie the Eleventh Circuit found punitive damages are also not awardable under general maritime law.
Atlantic Sounding provided the Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify the punitive damages issue. That case dealt with a crewmember injured on the job. As part of his lawsuit, he plead a claim for punitive damages under his employer's obligation to provide a daily living stipend and medical care until he reaches maximum medical improvement. This obligation is imposed upon maritime employers under general maritime law. General maritime law is court made common law derived from legal precedents from the birth of the United States. The crewmember alleged his employer's failure to provide such benefits were willful, wanton and in callous disregard for his wellbeing thereby entitling him to punitive damages. In 5-4 vote, the High Court found that although courts have found non-pecuniary damages are not available to crewmembers for their negligence claims under the Jones Act, there is no such prohibition under the general maritime law of the United States for non-Jones Act seaman claims. Citing precedent from as far back as colonial times, the Supreme Court held punitive damages are a part of the nation's general maritime law and available to seamen for their non-Jones Act claims.
Lobegeiger extends the Atlantic Sounding holding to passenger negligence claims. An important distinction between a seaman and passenger negligence claim is that seamen's negligence claim derived under the Congressional Jones Act and a passenger's negligence claims derives from the general maritime law. The Lobegeiger case involved a passenger aboard the Celebrity Cruise Line ship Mercury. While adjusting a sun lounge chair, the heavy back crashed down severing the passenger's left index finger at the interphallangeal joint. As part of her negligence lawsuit, the passenger reserved the right to amend her complaint to assert recovery of punitive damages if it is discovered the Celebrity actions rose to the level whereby punitive damages could be recovered. Celebrity sought to preclude the passenger from seeking punitive. The cruise line argued the Eleventh Circuit Sunset Limited opinion holds punitive damages are not available under general maritime law and that Atlantic Sounding only provided punitive damages to crewmember where their employers willfully and callously fail to provide certain living and medical benefits. The court rejected the cruise line's augment finding that punitive damages are available in all general maritime law claims unless specifically limited by Congress. Since Congress has not enacted any legislation to limit a passenger's right to recover punitive damages in a personal injury negligence lawsuit under general maritime law, such punitive damages are available due to the cruise line's wanton, willful or outrageous conduct.
After a long and meandering history, punitive damages are alive and well in maritime law. Such cases are instrumental in ensuring cruise passenger receiving just compensation for their injuries. If you were injured on a cruise ship and would like to know more about your rights, do not hesitate to contact the Florida Board Certified Maritime Lawyers at Brais & Brias.