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Maritime Update: Collapsing Crane Kills Seaman's Relative - Evaluating Emotional Damages

A seaman's relative is crushed by a falling crane.  Can the seaman recover emotional damages resulting from his relative's death?  This was the million-dollar question in the case of Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., decided by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 10, 2014.  This opinion clarifies that seamen are not entitled to this type of emotional damages in the Fifth Circuit. 

A.    Background

Larry Naquin was a vessel repair supervisor employed by Elevating Boats, LLC ("EBI") in Houma, Louisiana.  Naquin was responsible for the maintenance and repair of EBI's vessels.  He spent 70% of his time on boats and occasionally operated cranes on land.

On November 17, 2009, Naquin was operating a shipyard crane, designed and constructed by EBI.  A weld, which bound the crane to its base, failed, causing the boom and crane house to separate from the crane pedestal.  Naquin jumped away as the crane crashed on to a nearby building, and he suffered a broken foot and a lower abdominal hernia. 

Naquin's cousin's husband, who was also employed by EBI, was working in the building crushed by the falling crane and died. 

Mr. Naquin filed suit against EBI under the Jones Act.  He alleged that he was a seaman and that EBI was negligent in the construction and maintenance of the crane.  EBI moved to exclude all evidence of Naquin's relative's death prior to trial, but the district court allowed the evidence to be considered.  Throughout the trial, plaintiff's counsel focused on the relative's death to enhance Naquin's emotional damages. 

The jury concluded that plaintiff was a seaman and that EBI's negligence caused his injury, and awarded plaintiff $1,000,000 for physical pain and suffering, $1,000,000 for mental pain and suffering, and $400,000 for future lost wages.  EBI appealed.

B.    Discussion

On appeal, EBI maintained that the district court erred by admitting evidence of the relative's death because it was not relevant to plaintiff's emotional damages.

Naquin's counsel took the position that a Jones Act plaintiff, once physically injured and entitled to emotional damages, is entitled to the full spectrum of emotional damages, including those arising from an injury to someone else.

The "zone of danger" test allows a seaman to recover for emotional injury caused by fear of physical injury to himself.  Naquin was in the "zone of danger" and entitled to damages for emotional harm.  However, emotional harm resulting from harm to another is not compensable. 

C.    Conclusion

The Fifth Circuit concluded that emotional damages resulting purely from another person's injury are not compensable under the Jones Act.  Therefore, evidence of Naquin's relative's death was not relevant to his emotional damages.  This was so even though plaintiff was injured.  The Fifth Circuit vacated the jury's tainted damage award and remanded the case to the district court for a new trial limited to the issue of damages.

D.    Why is this important?

1.        This opinion provides guidance that Jones Act employers can use to reduce the perceived and/or actual value of certain seamen's emotional injury claims.      

2.        Crane manufacturers should implement and maintain stringent weld safety standards to avoid defective welds.

3.        Hiring a litigator who can effectively explain why irrelevant evidence must be excluded from the jury can save a client millions.

Attorneys

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