Pain and Suffering Damages Found as Pecuniary Under Maritime Law; Summary Judgment Granted in Part and Denied in Part U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, March 6, 2017

The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff, John Bell, lacked standing to pursue a wrongful death or survival action under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). Specifically, the defendants relied on the language in DOHSA, which stated that “when death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default occurring on the high seas beyond 3 nautical miles from the shore of the United States, the personal representative of the decedent may bring a civil action” and the holding in Dooley which barred survival actions under DOHSA. The plaintiffs argued that maritime law applied and conceded that under maritime law the wrongful death claim must be brought by the executrix of the estate Vickie Campos. The plaintiffs had added John Bell as a plaintiff to assert exposures that took place in Idaho. The parties contested whether or not a survival action could be sustained for exposures that occurred on ships. The court agreed with the plaintiff that maritime law applies as the evidence suggested exposures took place both within territorial waters and on the high seas. Accordingly, the motion as to the survival claim for exposure on ships was denied.

The defendants also moved for summary judgment as to claims asserted by Vickie Campos in her personal capacity and not as the personal representative. As she was not the decedent’s spouse the court agreed and granted the defendants’ summary judgment as to her personal claims.

The defendants also moved for summary judgment on damages under Bell’s wrongful death claim as he was not a “dependent relative” of William Bell. Although this argument was made in the context of DOHSA, the court analyzed the argument under maritime law since DOHSA did not apply. As a roommate of the decedent, the plaintiff needed assisted living after his roommate passed. The plaintiff claimed recovery for the increase in cost of his new living arrangements as well as pain and suffering of the decedent. The court quickly noted that as a seaman, nonpecuniary losses are not recoverable on the wrongful death claim. According to the court, the plaintiff could not recover nonpecuniary damages for the wrongful death claim. This part of the summary judgment motion was granted. However, there was sufficient evidence in the record to allow pecuniary damages to go forward on the wrongful death claim.

Finally, the defendants moved for summary judgment for all nonpecuniary damages including pain and suffering. The court noted that it had already found only pecuniary damages available in the wrongful death claim. It also noted that nonpecuniary damages are not available in survival actions. However, relying on the Jones Act the court found that claims for pain and suffering are pecuniary under the Jones Act. Accordingly, the pain and suffering damages under the survival action may be recoverable.

Read the full decision here.

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