Navy ShipAs has been discussed on this blog, a number of Courts—including the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the DE Maritime—have recently held that maritime law may apply to claims brought by former Navy sailors who allege exposure to asbestos while performing maintenance work on ships while at sea.  Now, the Supreme Court of Virginia, in John Crane, Inc. v. Hardick, has held that parties bringing such claims under maritime law on behalf of deceased Navy sailors may be limited in the damages they can recover.  In the March 2, 2012 opinion, available here, the Court held that a Virginia trial court erred by allowing a jury to award non-pecuniary damages to the widow of a former Navy sailor who died as a result of mesothelioma.  A summary of the case follows.

Factual Background:

Robert Hardick served in the Navy from 1957 to 1976 as a machinery repairman aboard various ships.  He allegedly worked with asbestos-containing gaskets and packing products used in connection with valves, pumps, and other equipment on the ships.  Mr. Hardick performed work on ships while they were in shipyards in territorial waters, and also worked on the ships while they were underway at sea, such as during several trips to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and during a 13-month cruise to the Mediterranean.

The Case and Verdict:

In 2007, Mr. Hardick was diagnosed with mesothelioma and filed suit against a number of product and equipment manufacturers, including John Crane.  Mr. Hardick died in 2009 during the pendency of his action, which was revived as a wrongful death claim by his wife, who is also the administratrix of his estate.  The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount $5,977,482.[1]  The verdict consisted of:

  1. $2 million for Mr. Hardick’s pain and suffering;
  2. $1.15 million for Mrs. Hardick’s loss of society;
  3. $2.5 million for Mrs. Hardick’s expected loss of Mr. Hardick’s income; and
  4. $327,482 for funeral and medical expenses.

After the verdict, John Crane filed a motion arguing, among other things, that the non-pecuniary portion of the verdict should be vacated.  At issue were the $2 million for Mr. Hardick’s pain and suffering and $1.15 million for Mrs. Hardick’s loss of society.  The trial court denied the motion, a decision that was appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia and overturned.

The Virginia Supreme Court’s Opinion:

The Court made two rulings in its decision, which are best understood by examining the second ruling first.  The Court concluded its opinion by holding that in wrongful death actions brought under maritime law, the estate of a seaman is limited to recovery of pecuniary losses, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990).  The Court rejected Mrs. Hardick’s argument that non-pecuniary losses were recoverable under a “common law” or general maritime law cause of action, even though non-pecuniary damages may be barred under either the Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) or the Jones Act (two of the federal statutes governing maritime law).  The Court found the holding in Miles clear: only pecuniary damages are allowed under the Jones Act and DOHSA and “a uniform rule [should apply] to all actions for the wrongful death of a seaman, whether under DOHSA, the Jones Act, or general maritime law.”  Thus, non-pecuniary damages are not available to the estate of a seaman in a wrongful death action under maritime law, regardless of the legal basis upon which the claim is brought.

The pivotal question, therefore, and the one the Court addressed first, was whether Mr. Hardick was a “seaman” or, as Mrs. Hardick argued, a “non-seafarer.”

The U.S. Supreme Court defined “seaman” in McDemott Int’l, Inc. v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337 (1991), as an employee whose “duties must ‘contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.’”  The U.S. Supreme Court added in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), that “a seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation…that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.”

The Court had little trouble concluding that Mr. Hardick was a seaman.  Although the opinion does not spend much time applying Chandris or Wilander to the facts of the case at bar, the Court’s holding was likely based upon Mr. Hardick’s service as a machinery repairman, work which contributed to the function of the vessel, during periods of time in which the vessel was at sea, or, in other words, “in navigation.”  The Court also had little trouble in rejecting Mrs. Hardick’s argument that Mr. Hardwick was a non-seafarer as defined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199 (1996).  The Court noted that Mr. Hardick bore little in common with a 12-year-old girl riding a jet ski, who was the injured party at issue in Yamaha.

In conclusion, the Court held that because Mr. Hardick was a seaman, Miles applied and the $2 million the jury awarded for Mr. Hardick’s pain and suffering and the $1.15 million awarded for Mrs. Hardick’s loss of society were not recoverable by the plaintiff, as they were not pecuniary in nature.

Conclusion:

As with the decisions that have concluded that maritime law applies to certain former Navy sailors’ asbestos-related personal injury claims, the Hardick opinion does not provide the hard and fast rules that litigants in mass tort litigation often desire.  Most notably, the decision leaves open the question of how long a Navy sailor has to be working at sea before his “connection to a vessel in navigation” is sufficient to qualify that sailor as a “seaman” under Wilander and Chandris.  We will be sure provide any updates in the future as this question is litigated in other cases, as it almost surely will be.


[1] John Crane, Garlock, and Crane Co. all appeared on the verdict sheet.  The jury determined that the verdict should be split 50/50 between Garlock and John Crane, and assigned no fault to Crane.