by Michael J. O’Brien

In 2016, District Judge Sarah Vance ruled that the heirs of a self-employed commercial fisherman who died while fishing in state territorial waters could recover non-pecuniary damages.  In Re: Marquette Transp., 182 F.Supp. 3d 607 (E.D. La 2016) (citing Yamaha Motor Corp USA v. Calhoun 516 U.S. 1999 (1996)). [Editor’s Note: See blog post on In re Marquette here]. Judge Vance first reiterated that a non-seafarer is someone who is neither a seaman covered by the Jones Act nor a longshore or harbor worker covered by the LHWCA. Based on this reasoning, the In re Marquette decedent was found to be a non-seafarer. Further, his survivors could pursue state law remedies and recover non-pecuniary damages under state law. Two years later, Judge Vance recently revisited Yamaha to address a separate but similar issue:  whether the spouse of an injured non-seafarer can recover damages pursuant to state law claims for loss of society and consortium.

In Van Horn, et al. v. Chubb Ins. Co., et al., No. 1711969, (E.D. La 4/03/18). The injured Plaintiff, Muriel Van Horn, was a race official for sailing regattas on Lake Pontchartrain. On the day in question, Mrs. Van Horn boarded a boat for transport to her official’s position. While traveling on Lake Pontchartrain, the boat operator suddenly accelerated his vessel over the swells of the lake. The boat left the water’s surface, assumed a nearly vertical position in the air, and violently slammed down on the water. As a result, Mrs. Van Horn fractured her right tibial plateau. She required major surgery and ongoing medical care. Mrs. Van Horn and her husband sued the boat operator and others for damages under the General Maritime Law as well as Louisiana Law in supplement to General Maritime Law. Specifically, Mr. Van Horn asserted Louisiana state law claims for loss of consortium and society as a result of his wife’s injuries. Defendants took exception to Plaintiffs’ claims and moved to dismiss all claims for loss of consortium and society.

In support of their claims, the Van Horns argued that claims for loss of consortium and society are available to the spouse of a non-seafarer injured in territorial waters when authorized by state law per Yamaha. Note that Yamaha’s “non-seafarer” and “territorial waters” requirements were met as it was undisputed that Mrs. Van Horn was a non-seafarer injured in Louisiana’s territorial waters. Further, Louisiana law permits the spouse of an injured person to recover damages for loss of consortium and society. As such, the Van Horns alleged that they were well within their rights to maintain these non-pecuniary claims.

Alternatively, the Defendants suggested that Yamaha was limited solely to wrongful death actions.  Defendants cited the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in In Re: Amtrak “Sunset Limited” Train Crash, 121 F.3d 1421 (11th Cir. 1997), where that circuit held that Yamaha does not extend to personal injury actions because state wrongful death actions had a historical basis in admiralty. The Eleventh Circuit’s rationale was that no General Maritime cause of action for wrongful death existed prior to 1970; thus, admiralty courts looked to state law to provide a remedy for the deaths of non-seamen in territorial waters.  By contrast, the General Maritime Law has long recognized a personal injury cause of action, such that admiralty courts did not need to rely on state law for remedies in cases of personal injury.  As such, according to Defendants (and the Eleventh Circuit), Mr. Van Horn should be unable to maintain his loss of consortium and society claims.

While Judge Vance admitted that the Eleventh Circuit’s argument had “some force,” she was not persuaded that the Yamaha Court endorsed separate remedies for personal injuries and wrongful deaths of non-seafarers in territorial waters.  Indeed, given the absence of conflict between state remedies and federal law as well as the “clear trend toward consistent treatment of maritime personal injury and wrongful death actions”, Judge Vance found that Yamaha was applicable to personal injuries within territorial waters. As such, Louisiana laws governing loss of consortium damages may supplement General Maritime Law with regard to personal injuries of non-seafarers in territorial waters. Accordingly, Judge Vance held that Mr. Van Horn claims of loss of consortium and society could proceed.