It comes as a surprise that the Ocean State with its 384 miles of tidal shoreline has a dearth of admiralty jurisprudence. Nevertheless, a federal maritime action that came before the Rhode Island Supreme Court this year left the high court wading through salty waters as it analyzed claims for maintenance and cure, negligence under the federal Jones Act and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness. The decision, which marks the rare occasion when the Supreme Court is called upon to address maritime claims, is noteworthy not only for its holdings but also its extensive articulation and interpretation of three bodies of maritime law. King v. Huntress, 94 A.3d 467 (R.I. 2014).
In its wake, the following points are clear:
(1) Rhode Island state courts have jurisdiction over federal maritime actions pursuant to the “savings to suitors” clause set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1331(1);
(2) unearned wages are available on a maintenance claim only from the time seaman becomes unfit for his or her duties until the balance of the voyage, unless the seaman has a employment contract providing him or her with the right to employment for a fixed period of time;
(3) The Jones Act creates a statutory negligence cause of action which enables a seaman injured during the course of his or her employment to elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer;
(4) Proof of negligence is not necessary to prevail on a claim for breach of the warranty of seaworthiness but the breach must be the proximate cause of the injuries sustained; and
(5) in a federal maritime action pending in state court, prejudgment interest must be applied in accordance with federal maritime law.
In King, the plaintiff, a deckhand on a commercial fishing vessel, fell from a ladder while painting an area on the ceiling of the ship’s fish hold deck. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff sustained a large rotator cuff tear. The plaintiff brought suit against the vessel’s owner and asserted claims for maintenance and cure, negligence under the federal Jones Act and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness. After a seven day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff for $257,500 on plaintiff’s maintenance and cure claim and found in favor of the defendant on plaintiff’s Jones Act and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness claims. After the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial on the maintenance and cure claim and granted the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial on plaintiff’s Jones Act and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness claims, both parties appealed.
“Although the law of the sea is essential federal in nature, the Rhode Island state courts have jurisdiction over . . . federal maritime action[s] pursuant to the ‘savings to suitors’ clause set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1331(1).”
B. Maintenance and Cure
As the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has recognized, “‘[f]rom time immemorial, the law of the sea has required shipowners to ensure the maintenance and cure of seamen who fall ill or become injured while in service of the ship.’” (quoting Ferrara v. A. & V. Fishing, Inc., 99 F.3d 449, 454 (1st Cir. 1996)). Maintenance and cure, which are akin to workers’ compensation benefits, are provided to a seaman, without regard to the negligence of the employer or the unseaworthiness of the ship.
Maintenance and cure are curative remedies. Maintenance is the “provision of, or payment for, food and lodging,” while cure is the payment of “any necessary health-care expenses . . . incurred during the period of recovery from an injury or malady.” Unearned wages may also be recovered on a maintenance and cure claim.
A seaman will only forfeit his entitlement to maintenance and cure if he engages in gross misconduct. Seamen have a right to receive maintenance and cure until such time as he reaches “maximum medical recovery.” “[M]aximum medical recover occurs when the seaman is ‘so far cured as possible’ – meaning that the seaman is either fit to work or his or her ‘condition has stabilized and further progress ended short of a full recovery.’”
In King, the trial justice instructed the jury that if the jury awarded the plaintiff maintenance and cure, it should also award the plaintiff unearned wages when the plaintiff was serving the ship. The defendant claimed the instruction was in error because the trial justice did not explain that the plaintiff was serving the ship only if he was on a voyage or had an employment contract for a specified duration. On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed.
After a review of federal case law, the Supreme Court held that unearned wages are available on a maintenance claim only from the time seaman becomes unfit for his or her duties until the balance of the voyage, unless the seaman has a employment contract providing him or her with the right to employment for a fixed period of time.
The trial justice’s jury instructions, which did not make that limitation clear, where therefore erroneous. Consequently, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial on the plaintiff’s claim for maintenance and cure.
C. The Jones Act
The Jones Act creates a statutory negligence cause of action which enables a seaman injured during the course of his or her employment to “elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.” (quoting 46 U.S.C. § 30104(a)). To prevail on a negligence claim under the Jones Act, the injured seaman must demonstrate that the employer failed to exercise reasonable care, which contributed even in the slightest way to his or her injury. Under the Jones Act, the employer’s negligence does not need to render the ship unseaworthy.
D. Warranty of Seaworthiness
The United States Supreme Court has “‘undeviatingly reflected an understanding that the owner’s duty to furnish a seaworthy ship is absolute and completely independent of his duty under the Jones Act to exercise reasonable care.’” (quoting Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 549 (1960)). Unlike a claim under the Jones Act, claims for breach of the warranty of seaworthiness do not involve an analysis of negligence. See Mitchell, 362 U.S. at 549 (recognizing that the question of seaworthiness of a vessel has been “complete[ly] divorce[d] . . . from the concepts of negligence.”). Nevertheless, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized:
[I]t is a duty only to furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use. The standard is not perfection, but reasonable fitness; not a ship that will weather every conceivable storm or withstand every imaginable peril of the sea, but a vessel reasonably suitable for her intended service.
Id. at 550. Thus, a seaman must prove that the unseaworthy condition is the proximate cause of his or her injuries.
E. Federal Maritime Prejudgment Interest
In King, the trial justice applied Rhode Island’s prejudgment interest statute, R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-21-10(a), which requires that the clerk of the court add to the damages interest at the rate of 12 percent per year from the date the cause of action accrued. The defendant argued that the trial court erred in doing so because prejudgment interest is substantive in nature, therefore, it must be awarded in accordance with federal maritime law. The Supreme Court agreed.
Unlike Rhode Island’s prejudgment interest statute, under federal maritime law, the decision to award prejudgment interest is left to the discretion of the jury. Thus, the law applicable to an award of such interest can have a significant impact on the defendant’s liability.
In treading these new waters, the Supreme Court began by recognizing that the “‘savings to suitors clause,’ which gives state court jurisdiction (albeit not exclusive jurisdiction) over a federal maritime claim, ‘allows state courts to entertain in personam maritime causes of action, but in such cases the extent to which state law may be used to remedy maritime injuries is constrained by a so-called reverse-Erie doctrine which requires that the substantive remedies afforded by the States conform to governing federal maritime standards.’” (quoting Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207, 222-23 (1986)). Thus, issues that are substantive in nature will be governed by federal maritime law.
In evaluating whether prejudgment interest is substantive in nature, the Court looked to non-maritime decisions, including its decision in L.A. Ray Realty v. Town Council of Cumberland, 698 A.2d 202, 213-14 (R.I. 1997), in which it recognized that when application of the state’s law would result in a different outcome, the issue is likely substantive in nature. Having already observed that Rhode Island’s prejudgment interest statute differed dramatically from federal maritime law, which leaves the decision to award prejudgment interest to the discretion of the jury, the Court concluded that prejudgment interest is necessarily substantive in nature. Consequently, the trial justice erred in applying Rhode Island’s prejudgment interest statute.