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Nieves v. Cooper Marine Timberlands Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division

August 11, 2017

KASSANDRA NIEVES, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Juan Nieves, and His Surviving Heirs and Dependents PLAINTIFF



         Juan Nieves suffered a fatal accident while unloading a barge for Kinder Morgan Bulk Terminals, Inc., in Arkansas territorial waters in the Mississippi river. Kassandra Nieves, as the representative for the estate of Juan Nieves, commenced this action against Cooper Marine & Timberlands Corporation, Logistic Services, Inc., Steel Dynamics Columbus, LLC, Kinder Morgan Bulk Terminals, Inc., Kinder Morgan Marine Services, LLC, and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, L.P. This Court granted Kinder Morgan Energy Partners summary judgment and dismissed it from the case. Document #175. The claims that remain in the amended complaint are as follows: wrongful death and survival claims against Cooper Marine based on its negligence; wrongful death and survival claims against Steel Dynamics under negligence and strict products liability theories; wrongful death and survival claims against Logistic Services under negligence and strict products liability theories; and wrongful death and survival claims against Kinder Morgan Bulk Terminals and Kinder Morgan Marine Services for their negligence. Nieves seeks pecuniary and nonpecuniary-including punitive-damages under both general maritime law and Arkansas state law.

         Through separate motions Cooper Marine, Logistic Services, Steel Dynamics, and the Kinder Morgan defendants all move for summary judgment on Kassandra Ni eves's claim for damages under Arkansas state law. These same defendants also move for summary judgment on Nieves's claim for punitive damages under both general maritime law and Arkansas law. Cooper Marine and Logistic Services move for summary judgment on Nieves's claim for nonpecuniary damages under general maritime law. Finally, Cooper Marine and Kinder Morgan Marine Services move for summary judgment on any claim based on the unseaworthiness of their vessels. These motions are well-suited to be considered together and ruled on jointly. For the following reasons, the motions are granted in part and denied in part.

         A court should enter summary judgment if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). A genuine dispute of material fact exists only if the evidence is sufficient to allow a jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2511.

         This Court has set out the facts of this case in prior orders. It is sufficient to note that no party contests that Nieves was unloading steel coils from a barge on the Mississippi river in Arkansas territorial waters at the time of the accident. The issues raised in the defendants' motions are purely issues of law regarding the law and remedies that apply to the claims in this case. As such, summary judgment is "particularly appropriate." Crain v. Bd. of Police Comm 'rs of Metro. Police Dep 't of St. Louis, 920 F.2d 1402, 1406 (8th Cir. 1990).

         The accident at issue here undoubtedly falls within admiralty's domain. See Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206, 116 S.Ct. 619, 623, 133 L.Ed.2d 578 (1996) (involving pleasure craft accident in territorial waters); Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 361-367, 110 S.Ct. 2892, 2895-2898, 111 L.Ed.2d 292 (1990) (involving fire on noncommericial vessel at marina on navigable waterway); Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668, 675 n.5, 102 S.Ct. 2654, 2658, 73 L .Ed. 2d 300 (1982) (involving collision between two pleasure crafts on navigable waters and noting that when a watercraft sinks in navigable waters and bears a substantial relationship with traditional maritime activity, admiralty jurisdiction is appropriate). When a court exercises admiraltyjurisdiction, it applies substantive admiralty law. Yamaha, 516U.S. at206, 116 S.Ct. at 623. This does not mean, however, that state law is automatically preempted or displaced. Id. Indeed, a fundamental feature of admiralty law is that state law sometimes applies. Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 546, 115 S.Ct. 1043, 1054, 130 L.Ed.2d 1024 (1995).

         Maritime wrongful-death actions have a somewhat turbulent history. As most do, the Court begins its review of maritime wrongful-death law with The Harrisburg, 119U.S. 199, 7 S.Ct. 140, 30 L.Ed. 358 (1886). There, the Supreme Court held that general maritime law did not recognize a cause of action for wrongful death. Id. at213, 7 S.Ct. 146-47. The Court reasoned that wrongful-death actions are statutory creations and may not be judicially added to general maritime law-a type of federal common law that has developed through case law. Id; see also Yamaha, 516 U.S. at 206, 116 S.Ct. at 624. Nevertheless, federal admiralty courts allowed state wrongful-death statutes to provide a remedy. Id. at 207, 116 S.Ct. at 624.[1] In Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233, 42 S.Ct. 89, 66 L.Ed. 210 (1921), the Supreme Court blessed this practice when it held that a widow of a maritime worker killed in California's territorial waters could supplement general maritime law by bringing a wrongful-death action under California law. Id. at 238-42, 42 S.Ct. at 89-90. The Supreme Court later held that state survival statutes may be applied in cases where the injury occurs in territorial waters. See Just v. Chambers, 312 U.S. 383, 391-392, 61 S.Ct. 687, 692-693, 85 L.Ed. 903 (1941). The state of admiralty law remained this way for many years: no wrongful-death remedy under general maritime law but state statutes could supplement federal law and provide a cause of action.

         The Supreme Court revisited The Harrisburg mMoragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 375, 90 S.Ct. 1772, 1775, 26 L.Ed.2d 339 (1970). Moragne overruled The Harrisburg and held "that an action does lie under general maritime law for death caused by violation of maritime duties." Id. at 409, 90 S.Ct. at 1792. Moragne involved a widow of a longshoreman killed in Florida territorial waters who had brought suit under Florida's wrongful-death and survival statutes. Following Moragne, the Supreme Court then decided Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573 94 S.Ct. 806, 39 L.Ed.2d 9 (1974). In Gaudet, the Court held that a widow of a longshoreman who died aboard a vessel in navigable waters could recover for loss of support, services, society, and funeral expenses in a wrongful-death action. Id. at 591, 94 S.Ct. at 818. The Court recognized that nonpecuniary damages are not recoverable under the Death on the High Seas Act noting that the Act does not extend to state territorial waters. Id. at 588 n.22, 94 S.Ct. at 816.

         Although Gaudet explained that "[t]he term 'society' embraces a broad range of mutual benefits each family member receives from the others' continued existence, including love, affection, care, attention, companionship, comfort, and protection, " the Court expressly excluded damages based on mental anguish or grief. Id. at 585 n. 17, 94 S.Ct. at 815. Damages for mental anguish or grief are "not compensable under the maritime wrongful-death remedy." Id. The Court subsequently extended Gaudef s ruling to nonfatal maritime injuries to longshoremen occurring in state territorial waters. See Am. Exp. Lines, Inc. v. Alvez, 446 U.S. 274, 281, 100 S.Ct. 1673, 1677, 64 L.Ed.2d 284 (1980).

         Some of the defendants contend that Gaudet is no longer controlling and that Nieves is barred from recovering nonpecuniary damages, such as for loss of society.[2] Congress overruled Gaudet in part when it passed the 1972 amendments to the Longshore Act. These amendments barred "recovery from shipowners for the death or injury of a longshoreman or harbor worker resulting from breach of the duty of seaworthiness." Miles v. ApexMarine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 28, 111 S.Ct. 317, 323, 112 L.Ed.2d 275 (1990). Otherwise, Gaudet has not been overruled. These defendants rely on Miles and Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 98 S.Ct. 2010, 56 L.Ed.2d 581 (1978), to support their argument that, despite Gaudet, wrongful-death damages are limited to pecuniary losses. These two decisions, however, addressed cases that arose under statutes other than the Longshore Act, and in them the Court distinguished but did not overrule Gaudet. Miles, 498 U.S. at 33, 111 S.Ct. at 326 (Jones Act); Higginbotham, 436 U.S. at 625, 98 S.Ct. at 2015 (Death on the High Seas Act). It is true that Gaudefs holding has been construed narrowly-"Gaudet applies only in territorial waters, and it applies only to longshoremen"-but Nieves was a longshoreman in territorial waters. Id. at 31, 111 S.Ct. at 325; see also Moore v. M/V ANGELA, 353 F.3d 376, 383 (5th Cir. 2003) ("The loss of consortium award is permissible in this § 905(b) case.").

         The defendants also contend that Nieves is unable to recover punitive damages. Logistic Services stands alone in arguing that because punitive damages are a type of nonpecuniary damages, they are not compensable under general maritime law. The remaining defendants assume they can be awarded when the facts support such an award but argue that the facts do not support an award in this case. Logistic Services so argues in the alternative to its contention that maritime law does not permit punitive damages.

         In Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 129 S.Ct. 2561, 174 L.Ed.2d 382 (2009), the Supreme Court considered whether punitive damages are available under general maritime law for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation. The Court noted that "[p]unitive damages have long been an available remedy at common law for wanton, willful, or outrageous conduct." Id. at 409, 129 S.Ct. at 2566. The Court then explained that "[t]he general rule that punitive damages were available at common law extended to claims arising under federal maritime law." Id. at 411, 129 S.Ct. at 2567. Addressing the issue before it, the Court concluded that" [n]othing in maritime law undermines the applicability of this general rule in the maintenance and cure context." The Court then considered whether Congress had legislatively altered this rule and held that Congress had not. Id. at 415, 129 S.Ct. at 2569.

         Townsend leaves an important framework in its wake. See Doyle v. Graske, 579 F.3d 898, 906 (8th Cir. 2009) (adopting the Townsend approach). To determine whether punitive damages are available in a maritime tort action, a court should approach the question by noting that punitive damages have long been recoverable at common law and that the common-law rule allowing punitive damages extends to maritime torts. Townsend, 557 U.S. at 415, 129 S.Ct. at 2569. The Eighth Circuit has not directly addressed whether a longshoreman may recover punitive damages against negligent third-parties, but it has recognized that punitive damages are recoverable under general maritime law. See Graske, 579 F.3d at 906. A leading admiralty treatise, likewise, recognizes that punitive damages may be recovered under general maritime law. 1 Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law § 5-18 (5th ed. 2011). The remaining question is whether any federal statute undermines the availability of punitive damages for Nieves. Unlike the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act, the Longshore Act does not create a statutory cause of action for negligence. See Alvez, 446 U.S. at 281, 100 S.Ct. at 1677 (explaining that "general federal maritime law is a source of relief for a longshoreman's personal injury just as it is a source of remedy for wrongful death" (internal citation omitted)). Nieves's punitive damages claims, then, are governed by general maritime law, which, as Townsend holds, is in accord with the common-law rule permitting recovery for punitive damages.

         The Eighth Circuit Committee on Model Jury Instructions (Civil) has provided the following pattern instruction for punitive ...

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