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Posted: January 24, 2018

Judge Wexler Dismisses Jones Act Claims But Not Maritime Law Claims Where Beneficiary Died Prior to Asserting Claim

In a January 9, 2018 ruling, Judge Leonard D. Wexler highlighted the rigid structure applicable to negligence actions for deceased seamen under the Jones Act. (In re Wittich Bros. Marine Inc. , 15–CV-5210 (LDW)(ARL)).

Practitioners often reflexively assume that a potential cause of action available to an individual will survive death and accrue to the estate. This, however, is not the case with certain actions under the Jones Act.

The facts of the case are tragic: Donald Maloney was a crew member of the tug boat “Sea Bear”. He died in March 2015 when the Sea Bear sank near Fire Island Pines. Maloney’s daughter, Corrine Maloney, was his only beneficiary and she was appointed as the administrator of Donald’s estate. However, just months after her father’s death, Corrine Maloney died in a car accident.

The estate of Corrine Maloney subsequently brought negligence and unseaworthiness claims on behalf of Corrine’s estate against the owner of the tug boat with respect to Donald Maloney’s death. The claims were brought under both the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act), 46 U.S.C. § 688 and general maritime law.

The Court granted the boat owner’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in part, and dismissed the claims brought under the Jones Act. The Court held that although Corrine could have sued under the Jones Act for both wrongful death and her father’s pain and suffering, the right to sue, if not exercised, terminated when she died.

The right of recovery under the Jones Act, if any, depends on Section 1 of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 51, which provides that recovery of damages shall be “for the benefit of the surviving widow or husband and children of such employee; and, if none, then of such employee’s parents; and, if none, then of the next of kin dependent upon such employee.” Gillespie v. United States Steel Corp., 379 U.S. 148, 156 (1964) (quoting 45 U.S.C. § 51). As the Supreme Court has held on more than one occasion, “this provision ‘creates three classes of possible beneficiaries. But the liability is in the alternative. It is to one of the three; not to the several classes collectively.’” Id. (quoting Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. Wells-Dickey Trust Co., 275 U.S. 161, 163 (1927)).

Here, any cause of action pursuant to the Jones Act immediately vested in Maloney’s daughter, Corrine, upon his death. Had Corrine survived, she could have brought both wrongful death and survivor claims against [the boat owner] under the Jones Act. However, Corrine passed away prior to instituting any legal action against [the boat owner] for Maloney’s death. [Corrine’s mother] now seeks to bring that action on behalf of Corrine’s estate. Such conduct has been expressly rejected by the Supreme Court.

As the Supreme Court has made clear, when a cause of action accrues under the Jones Act, “there is an immediate, final and absolute vesting; and the vesting is in that one of the several possible beneficiaries who, according to the express provision in the statute, is declared to be compensated.” Chicago, B. & Q. R., 275 U.S. at 163. Had Corrine brought an action against the owner of the tug boat prior to her death, “it would have been for [her] benefit … and no other action would have lain.” Id. at 164. “The failure to bring the action in [her] lifetime did not result in creating a new cause of action after her death” for the benefit of either [Corrine’s mother] or Corrine’s estate. Id.

Based on the foregoing, any claims Corrine may have been entitled to bring against [the boat owner] pursuant to the Jones Act abated when Corrine passed away.

(In re Wittich Bros. Marine Inc. , 15–CV-5210 (LDW)(ARL)).

However, the Court held that the Jones Act did not pre-empt the general maritime laws, and such potential causes of action do in fact survive the death of the potential claimant. As such, the estate could nonetheless proceed under the general maritime law for claims of wrongful death of a seaman. The Court, accordingly, denied the boat owner’s motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the general maritime law claims.

Posted by Solomon N. Klein, Litigation Partner

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