California court rules no recovery for loss of society damages in maritime case

Prickett v Bonnier Corp., et al [13.10.20]

Kennedys marine team won a significant victory recently in the California Court of Appeal in the case of Prickett v Bonnier Corp [13.10.20] which dealt with the issue of damages for loss of society in the context of a maritime case.

Background

The plaintiff’s father had been injured in a scuba diving accident in Tahiti, French Polynesia. He had previously sued the insured, Bonnier, a media company, and received a US$7.8 million settlement, in a case handled by another law firm. The dust had barely settled in that case before the same plaintiff’s attorney sued the insured again, this time on behalf of Mr. Prickett’s minor daughter, claiming loss of her father’s “society”.

Legal arguments

Since loss of society damages are non-economic (loss of society is claimed when someone can no longer provide important social relationships as a result of death or injury), we argued that the US Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v Apex [1990] and its progeny prohibited recovery of such damages in a maritime case.

The plaintiff countered that the US courts’ traditional “special solicitude for seamen” allowed even the lowest level courts to create novel maritime remedies in injury cases, arguing that Miles had effectively been overruled.  

However, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dutra Group v Batterton [2019], reaffirming Miles, which held that courts should take guidance from the legislature and not freely create new maritime causes of action, and that “special solicitude” is no longer the controlling mantra of admiralty law, we moved to dismiss the daughter’s case.

In addition to Batterton, we also relied on a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case, Chan v Society Expeditions [1994], which also involved a child’s claim for an injury to his father in Tahiti, and which denied loss of society damages.

The trial court agreed with us, and the Court of Appeal affirmed in a published decision, 3 to 0.

Comment

What is the importance of this decision? First, it accepts the US Supreme Court’s guidance that courts should hesitate to create new maritime causes of action; that is for the political branches of government, generally the legislature.

Second, it recognizes that while in the age of sailing ships, the seaman’s life was harsh and difficult, those days are gone. Maritime employees have remedies available under the Jones Act, Longshore Act, Death on the High Seas Act, and other state and federal laws. Because Congress has passed laws providing remedies to seamen, courts now “sail in occupied waters” and should not take the job of legislating new rights and remedies onto themselves.

Thirdly, following Miles, the California court held that a child cannot recover non-economic damages such as for loss of society, based on an injury to a parent which occurred on the high seas.

This decision will benefit P&I and maritime employers’ liability insurers alike, by eliminating claims for non-economic damages, which are impossible to quantify but which could be costly to insurers.

The case was handled by Forrest Booth, assisted by Pamela Schultz and Brad Pace, of Kennedys’ California office.   

Read others items in Marine Brief - November 2020