Keith Brais and Richard Rusak of the Brais maritime law firm obtained a ruling from a Florida court allowing the wife of an injured seaman to pursue a claim for loss of consortium. Loss of consortium is a claim typically possessed by the spouse of a person injured by the fault of another. This claim includes compensation for household chores the injured spouse now cannot perform as well as compensation for the non-injured spouse’s loss of comfort and diminished social life the accident brought upon the marriage. Maritime law does not allow every spouse of an injured person to make a claim for loss of consortium. In fact, due to the improper interpretation of a Supreme Court ruling, the law has been rather unsettled.
Courts have historically allowed for spouses of seamen whose injuries were caused by the unseaworthiness of the ships they worked aboard to bring a claim for loss of consortium. This tradition carried along until 1990 when the Supreme Court issued its opinion of Miles v. Apex Marine. In that case, a seaman was assaulted and killed by a fellow crewmember. The seaman’s mother and the estate brought a claim against the shipping company for negligence under the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act. The mother included a loss of consortium claim. The Supreme Court held loss of consortium damages in seamen death cases are not available as a matter of law given such damages are not available under the Jones Act negligence statute and the Death on the High Seas Act. Lower courts applying the Miles holding started to hold loss of consortium as well as other nonpecuniary damages such as punitive damages were not available in any maritime death and personal injury lawsuit. Such was the law until 2009 when the Supreme Court issued its Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend opinion. That case involved the issue of whether punitive damages were available to seamen for a maritime employer’s willful failure to provide illness benefits required under maritime common law. The Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether Miles precluded all traditional nonpecuniary remedies afforded to injured seaman before the enactment of the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act. The Supreme Court explained the Miles opinion only dealt with damages as they relate to a wrongful death case brought under the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act and such a holding should not impact traditional rights and legal remedies afforded to seamen before the enactment of those two statutes. The Supreme Court then undertook a historical analysis of punitive damages in maritime cases dating back to the colonial era and found seamen historically had the right to recover punitive damages when their employer acted willfully or recklessly in breaching their legal duties owed to their seamen. With Townsend clarifying that Miles was only limited to Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act wrongful death cases, the issue became ripe to re-allow spouses of injured seamen to bring loss of consortium claims based upon injured resulted from the unseaworthiness of the vessel.
Brais law represents an engineer who lost his vision when the chemicals he was mixing for a cruise ship’s desalination plant caused a violent reaction. As one can imagine the lives of the seaman and his wife changed dramatically after that day. Attorney Keith Brais brought a lawsuit against Carnival on behalf of the injured crewmember seeking compensation for the loss of his sight and on behalf of his wife seeking compensation for her essentially becoming the “eyes” of her now visually handicapped husband. Carnival sought to dismiss the wife’s loss of consortium claim arguing Miles precluded the claim and there was no historical right for loss of consortium. Richard Rusak and Keith Brais filed opposing briefs providing examples where courts throughout the United States allowed loss of consortium claims dating back to 1858. They then argued the Townsend holding must be applied to allow loss of consortium claims. The court agreed and denied Carnival’s motion and allowed the loss of consortium claim to proceed.