Advocacy, Practice and Procedure

By Denny, Otway B., Jr.; Levy, David J. | Defense Counsel Journal, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Advocacy, Practice and Procedure


Denny, Otway B., Jr., Levy, David J., Defense Counsel Journal


ONCE AGAIN the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal maritime law does not always exclude the application of state law. In Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun(12) a unanimous Court held that federal maritime law does not preempt state law remedies in wrongful death actions involving non-seafarers killed in U.S. territorial waters.

In the summer of 1989, 12-year-old Natalie Calhoun was vacationing with family friends at a hotel resort in Puerto Rico. On July 6, she rented a Yamaha "WaveJammer" jet ski. While she was riding it, she crashed and was killed. Natalie's parents brought suit in federal court in Pennsylvania against the jet ski manufacturer, Yamaha Motor Co., and its distributor, Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A. The Calhouns asserted several causes of action under Pennsylvania's wrongful death and survival statutes and sought compensatory damages for lost future earnings, loss of society, loss of support and services, and funeral expense, as well as punitive damages.

In the trial court, Yamaha sought summary judgment on the ground that federal maritime law provided the sole basis for recovery and displaced all state law remedies. It argued that federal maritime law allowed the Calhouns to seek damages only for federal expenses. The district court agreed that federal maritime law governed the claims, but it ruled that the Calhouns could seek to recover damages for loss of society, loss of support, and loss of services. The court then certified questions for interlocutory appeal on what types of damages are recoverable under federal maritime law.

The Third Circuit, instead of addressing the certified questions directly, held that the Calhouns could seek to recover state law measures of damages because federal maritime law did not preempt the availability of these remedies.(13)

The Supreme Court affirmed, tackling the following issue: "Does the federal maritime claim for wrongful death recognized in Moragne [398 U.s. 375] supply the exclusive remedy in cases involving the deaths of nonseafarers in territorial waters?" After analyzing the history of the wrongful death cause of action under maritime law, the Court concluded that state law remedies could supplement federal remedies.

The Court recounted that for many years--under the rule of The Harrisburg(14)--no remedy for wrongful death was available under general maritime law. This harsh rule prompted federal admiralty courts to allow recovery under state wrongful death statutes. Additionally, Congress provided a remedy for wrongful death to true seamen by the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. [sections] 688, and provided a remedy for wrongful death by the Death on the High Seas Act, 46 U.S.C. [sections] 761. Significantly, the Jones Act and many state wrongful death statutes did not establish liability for wrongful deaths arising from the maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness. …

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