For years courts have denied the ability of injured crew members’ spouses to bring lawsuits for loss of consortium against ship owners. Given the recent Supreme Court decision of Townsend v. Atlantic Sounding, courts are allowing spouses of hurt seafarers to bring lawsuits to recover damages caused by shipboard accidents. The implication of these cases may be more far reaching than only crew member lawsuits. As shown below, the logic of this line of cases may be applied to allow loss of consortium claims by spouses of cruise ship passengers against negligent cruise lines.
Loss of consortium is a legal claim for non-compensatory / non-economic damages arising from an injury of a spouse due to the negligence of another. This claim arises when the injured spouse cannot provide the uninjured spouse with the same companionship, services, love, affection and/or sexual relations enjoyed before the accident. A loss of consortium claim can be very significant if the hurt spouse sustains a long-lasting injury such as paralysis, incontinence, and/or loss of sexual function.
Townsend dealt with the legal issue of whether an injured seaman can bring a punitive damages claim against his employer for its willful, arbitrary or capricious failure to provide maintenance and cure. Maintenance and cure is an ancient obligation of maritime employers to provide injured seamen medical care and daily living stipends until the injury or illness reaches the point of maximum medical improvement. The maritime employer in Townsend argued non-compensatory damage awards such as punitive damages are impermissible in maritime personal injury litigation given the Supreme Court’s precedent of Miles v. Apex Marine. Miles precluded such relief in a Jones Act negligence case. The Supreme Court in Townsend, however, limited its previous Miles holding to apply only to Jones Act negligence claims and not to the common law maritime claims enjoyed by seamen before the Jones Act’s enactment.
This case involved a deckhand working aboard a fishing boat who suffered significant lung damage in the form of chronic dyspnea due to exposure of Freon gas leaking from the vessel’s damaged hoses. The seaman sued the ship owner for damages under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness. His wife sued the owner of the vessel for loss of consortium.
The ship owner sought to dismiss the wife’s claim based upon the Miles prohibition of non-compensatory / non-economic damages in maritime personal injury lawsuits. The trial court examined the Supreme Court’s Townsend decision which restricted Miles to only Jones Act negligence claims. The court keenly pointed out that seafarers’ were afforded personal injury damages due to a vessel’s unseaworthiness long before Congress enacted the Jones Act. Applying the logic of Townsend, the trial court found wives of injured seamen may bring a loss of consortium claims against the owners of ships aboard which their husbands were injured due to the unseaworthiness of those vessels. This case is one of the first which extends remedies allowable in maritime cases post Townsend.
The impact of Townsend and Barrette may reach farther than just injured seaman. Cruise lines owe cruise passengers the legal duty of reasonable care under the circumstances which is separate and distinct from the duty they owe crew members under the Jones Act. Given the Supreme Court’s restrictive treatment of non-compensatory / non-economic damages to only Jones Act negligence claims, courts may also start allowing spouses of injured cruise ship passengers to bring loss of consortium claims.