Death of Statutory Beneficiary During Pendency of Jones Act Claim Did Not Extinguish Jones Act Claims; Estate Could Recover Benefit U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, January 5, 2017

Defendant Thompson Hine filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s Jones Act survival claims abated due to no statutory beneficiary. The court denied the motion.

The plaintiff alleged that the decedent, Joseph Braun, was exposed to asbestos during his work aboard ships owned by the defendants and died from an asbestos-related disease. This case was originally filed in 1989 and asserted claims under the Jones Act and general maritime common law. In April 2011, the case was transferred to MDL 875 as part of the consolidated asbestos products liability multidistrict litigation. During the pendency of this action, the decedent’s wife also died. The record was unclear regarding whether the decedent had further next of kin dependent upon him. Thompson Hine argued there was now no statutory beneficiary to the survival claims, as the Jones Act only permitted claims to proceed where the recovery was distributed to a surviving spouse, child, parent, or next of kin who was dependent upon the decedent.

The parties agreed that maritime law governed the claims. The Jones Act incorporated FELA’s substantive recovery provisions — every common carrier shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while in their employ; if the employee died, the carrier shall be liable to the employee’s personal representative, surviving spouse, children, and next of kin dependent upon the employee. The plaintiff argued they identified a statutory beneficiary who was alive at the time of filing, and the death of this beneficiary during the pendency of the Jones Act action did not extinguish the cause of action. The defendant conceded that the Jones Act wrongful death claim did not abate, but the survival claim did.

In examining the record, the court noted that the defendant did not establish the lack of a living statutory beneficiary; there was no evidence that the potential beneficiary identified by the plaintiff — possibly decedent’s daughter-in-law, or perhaps a granddaughter or niece – was deceased or not dependent upon decedent. Even if there were no living statutory beneficiary, defendant’s motion still failed because the case law cited by defendant did not support the proposition that the estate itself could not recover damages. While the court recognized that it could not expand the class of beneficiaries statutorily permitted by Congress, other courts have concluded that where claimant died before the claim was processed, the estate of the claimant could collect the statutory benefit. Since this case was in the MDL, the court recognized as follows: “Finally, it would be an especially absurd and unfair result where, as here, the instant claims were effectively held in abeyance for decades because of a judicial backlog of asbestos cases.”

Read the full decision here.

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