Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

The Court Refuses to Drown State Wrongful Death Remedies for Nonseamen

Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

The Court Refuses to Drown State Wrongful Death Remedies for Nonseamen

Article excerpt





A. From The Harrisburg to Moragne

B. Unseaworthiness Becomes a Species of Liability Without Fault

C. Moragne Responds to Resulting Anomalies

D. Court's Uniformity Principle Soon Forgotten

E. Yamaha Consciously Creates Anomaly



"The federalism aspect of the United States Supreme Court's admiralty jurisprudence has long been adrift."(1) The Court's involvement with maritime wrongful death remedies since Me Harrisburg(2) epitomizes inconsistency. Setting the stage for over a decade of contradictions, The Harrisburg court held that general maritime law did not afford an action for wrongful death.(3) In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court relied on the traditional common-law rule, which denied any action for wrongful death,(4) and grafted it to maritime law.(5) The Supreme Court, however, did not preclude the application of state statutes to provide a right and remedy for wrongful death.(6) Twenty-one years later, the Court in The Hamilton(7) held that a state statute could be applied to grant wrongful death recovery occurring on the high seas.(8) The harshness of The Harrisburg's rule has often been avoided by federal admiralty courts permitting recovery for wrongful death under state survival and wrongful death statutes.(9) Because of the wide variance in individual state statutes, this practice has led to a lack of uniformity and overall inequity in maritime judgments.

Absent contrary statutory authority, general maritime law was unable to recognize a cause of action for wrongful death.(10) In an effort to achieve desired uniformity and mitigate the impact of The Harrisburg, Congress passed the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)(11) and the Jones Act(12) in 1920.(13) The DOSHA created a cause of action in admiralty for any wrongful death it occurring on the high seas beyond a marine league from the shore of any State ....".(14) The Jones Act, which incorporates provisions of the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA),(15) provides a wrongful death claim to the survivors of seaman killed in the course of employment, whether on territorial waters or on the high seas.(16) In its aim for uniformity, DOSHA has clearly missed the mark. The DOSHA has been appropriately labeled "statutory chaos" by one of the most prestigious admiralty treatises.(17)

Attempting to correct this problem, the Court in Moragne v. States Marine Lines(18) overruled The Harrisburg.(19) For almost one hundred years, The Harrisburg decision prevented the Court from shaping a uniform remedy for maritime wrongful death. Instead of clearing the waters, Moragne left it up to the lower courts to navigate the muddied waters without a map. The Court in Moragne held "an action does he under general maritime law for death caused by violation of maritime duties,"(20) but failed to define the remedy it created. Instead, Moragne left the task of defining the parameters of the general maritime law remedy it created to "further sifting through the lower courts in future litigation."(21) Instead of seizing the opportunity to establish uniformity, the Moragne court created more questions than answers.

The latest piece in this "unsolvable puzzle,"(22) Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun,(23) is the subject of this Note. The question presented in Yamaha is whether state wrongful death and survival statutes have been displaced by Moragne, a federal maritime rule of decision.(24) Yamaha held that the death of a nonseaman in territorial waters is a question to be decided in accordance with state law.(25) The Court reasoned that the motivating force behind Moragne also placed Yamaha beyond its reach.(26) As a result, state remedies may still supplement general maritime law, at least for nonseaman.

This Note will focus particularly on the reasoning employed by the Supreme Court in Yamaha. …

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