General Maritime Law Products Liability Claim Survives Summary Judgment
On May 18, 2023, a plaintiff's general maritime product liability action survived a defense motion for summary judgment in the case Thibodeaux v. T-H Marine Supplies, LLC. This ruling is significant because it distinguishes between general maritime law products liability claims and claims brought against manufacturers under the Louisiana Products Liability Act ("LPLA").
Plaintiff, Keith Thibodeaux, was an avid crappie angler who purchased an after-market handle and cable system called the G-Force Trolling Motor Handle and Cable ("G-Force") for his boat. The G-Force is a stainless cable with a wide grip handle manufactured by T-H Marine Supply, LLC ("THM"). The product packaging came with installation instructions but no warnings or guidance on maintenance.
In December 2020, Plaintiff was fishing in his aluminum flat-bottomed boat. The fish were not biting so Plaintiff decided to move to another spot. Plaintiff pulled back on the G-Force handle to store his trolling motor and the cable broke. Plaintiff fell and was injured.
On June 21, 2021, Plaintiff filed a general maritime law products liability suit against THM in the 19th Judicial District Court for the Parish of East Baton Rouge, State of Louisiana. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant's design, manufacture and selling the G-Force were intentional and/or wanton and reckless. Plaintiff further alleged the G-Force was defective because THM failed to warn him of a known danger. Plaintiff sought damages for personal injury, punitive damages, and lost wages.
On August 2, 2021, Defendant removed the case to federal court. THM filed a motion for partial summary judgment on a number of issues including punitive damages, products liability based on failure to warn, and wage loss. The Court denied THM's motion.
THM argued that Plaintiff's punitive damage claim must fail because punitive damages are not available in unseaworthiness actions. The Court was not convinced. Plaintiff had not alleged that the vessel owner breached a duty to ensure the vessel was seaworthy. The Court acknowledged that punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law. Plaintiff presented twenty-two acts or omissions by Defendant in designing and manufacturing G-Force that arguably constituted a pattern of negligence and recklessness. Genuine issues of material fact precluded THM's motion on punitive damages.
The Court then turned to Plaintiff's allegation that the G-Force was defective because THM failed to warn Plaintiff of a known danger. The Court distinguished cases relied on by THM and recognized that federal courts have embraced Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) Torts as the best expression of the law of products liability under general maritime law. Here, whether the product manufacturer knew about a danger posed by the G-Force was a disputed issue for trial. Finally, THM maintained that plaintiff could not have a lost wage claim since he resumed work. The Court rejected this argument.
C. Why Is This Important
- The U.S. Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit apply Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts as the substantive general maritime product liability law.
- In assessing what hazards are foreseeable, in cases like this one, a manufacturer is held to the status of an expert.
- Punitive damages are available under general maritime law if plaintiff can prove defendant's behavior was so egregious as to constitute gross negligence, callous disregard for the rights of others, actual malice, or criminal indifference.