Changes to maritime laws motivated by politics, lawyer says
Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April, some groups, including trial lawyers, see the incident as an opportunity to make changes to the federal statutes that cover injuries and deaths in the maritime industry.
However many business interests see the changes as unnecessary and fear the proposals would open the flood gates to needless litigation that will cripple the maritime industry and destroy jobs.
Mark Freeman, a maritime defense attorney with Baldo Stevens Freeman & Lighty in Beaumont, thinks the push for change is not necessarily motivated by a desire to help families.
"It is a political reaction to the BP issue," Freeman said in a telephone interview. "An environmental event is being used to change not only the Jones Act, but other marine statutes and ship owners' liability as well."
By a voice vote in early July, the House of Representatives approved the Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act.
The SPILL Act amended the decades-old Death on the High Seas Act, the Jones Act and the Limitation of Liability Act. The changes would allow families of the deceased oil workers to recover non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, loss of care, comfort and companionship. The change would also apply to passengers of ships on the high seas, including cruise lines.
Plaintiffs' lawyers hailed the vote as an overdue victory for those seeking legal recourse for injuries that occur at sea. Business groups and cruise companies oppose the change, arguing that it will expose maritime industries to new costs and legal burdens.
Similar litigation is being developed in the Senate. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation was set to hear a proposal for Senate Bill 3600, the Fairness in Admiralty and Maritime Law Act on July 22, but the discussion was postponed after several committee members raised concerns about the bill.
Freeman said the Jones Act works well, and doesn't need to be changed. The attorney also said it is not true that damages for pain and suffering are not available to injured seamen.
"The current law does allow it," he said. "(The Jones Act) is a very efficient statute, and provides a predictable framework for injured both workers and ship owners," Freeman said. "If Congress starts to change things, who knows what it will impact."
Kurt Arnold, a plaintiffs lawyer at Arnold & Itkin in Houston, said the problem is not with the Jones Act, but with the Death on the High Seas Act.
"Currently you are entitled to pain and suffering for an injury," Arnold said. "But if you are killed on water offshore, you have no remedy."
Arnold said damages for loss of consortium of a loved one can be collected if there is death on land, but a family member doesn't have that option if death occurs offshore.
"It's really restrictive, and there's no good reason for it," Arnold said.
Arnold said he and his law partner, Cory Itkin, feel so strongly about the bills that they have gone to Washington, D.C., to push for change. He said most of the lawmakers they spoke with seemed receptive.
"All we are asking is for the offshore laws to be the same as those on land," Arnold said. "We are talking about a change (to the statute) of only 2 or 3 sentences."
He said any attempt to make changes to the statutes in the past has been blocked by the cruise industry.