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Motion to Dismiss Damages under Maritime Law Granted in Part

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Jurisdiction: United States District Court for the Central District of California

In this action, the plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of the decedent, William Banks, in Los Angeles County Superior Court and thereafter removed the case to federal court. The plaintiffs pursued survival and wrongful death causes of action based on Banks’ alleged exposure to asbestos while serving in the United States Navy, and subsequent death from epithelial mesothelioma. Banks served as a machinist mate aboard several ships in the U.S. Navy from 1961 to 1984.

Defendant Air & Liquid Systems Corp., successor by merger to additional named defendants Buffalo Pumps Inc., Warren Pumps LLC, and Velan Valve Corp., filed the instant motion, seeking the application of general maritime law and the dismissal of non-pecuniary damages, also known as damages for pain and suffering, loss of society, loss of future earnings, and punitive damages. The plaintiffs did not contest the application of federal maritime law to this action. Rather, they provided three arguments in support of their claimed damages under maritime law.

First, the plaintiffs claimed that limitations on damages are restricted to actions brought under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act. As their claims are not “tethered” to either act, the plaintiffs urged the court to rely on maritime common law remedies, which include non-pecuniary and punitive damages. Second, the plaintiffs argued that the court is permitted to disregard Jones Act limitations as the plaintiffs have sued defendants other than Banks’ employer. Third, the plaintiffs argued that the case of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 26, 27 (1990) was implicitly overruled by Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009). In Miles, the plaintiff brought the common-law maritime cause of action of unseaworthiness, and the Supreme Court still found damages limitations relevant because the suit was brought on behalf of a Jones Act seaman.

After consideration of these arguments, the court determined that the plaintiffs sued on behalf of a Jones Act seaman and pursued a claim for negligence, which the Jones Act addresses. See Atlantic Sounding, 557 U.S. at 415 (“The Jones Act thus created a statutory cause of action for negligence.”). As such, the Jones Act limitations apply. As to pain and suffering damages, the Jones Act permits recovery for such damages in a survival action. Therefore, defendant’s motion was denied as to the claim for damages for pain and suffering. Conversely, the Jones Act does not permit recovery for loss of society and loss of future wage damages. Therefore, it is the plaintiffs’ burden to establish that such damages were “traditionally available in a products liability action brought under general maritime law or if policy reasons compel their availability.” Because the plaintiffs failed to do so, the court applied the Jones Act limitations and granted defendant’s motion as to damages for loss of society and loss of future earnings. Lastly, the Jones Act does not permit punitive damages, and plaintiffs must demonstrate their availability by showing a “historical tradition” or policy arguments. The court agreed with district courts that have found against the availability of punitive damages. It further determined that the plaintiffs failed to satisfy their burden. Therefore, the court granted defendant’s motion as to punitive damages.

In sum, the court dismissed the claims for damages for loss of society, loss of future earnings, and punitive damages.

Read the full decision here.