$2,100,000 – Compression Fracture

Award Amount: $2,100,000

Location: Boston, Massachusetts Verdicts and Settlements

Admiralty

Jones Act – Minor

Physical injury, High Award

Amount of award: Approximately $2.1 Million

Injuries alleged: Mild compression fracture T-8

Name of case: Plaintiff v. Maritime Overseas Corp. & Cambridge Tankers Inc.

Court/case#: U.S. District Court, No. 95-12612-JLT

Tried before judge or jury: Jury

Name of Judge: Joseph L. Tauro

Amount of award: Approximately $2.1 Million

Date: February 20, 1997

Highest offer: $65,000

Most helpful experts: Victor Parisien, M.D., Lewiston, Maine

Attorney for plaintiff: Michael B. and Carolyn M. Latti, Latti Associates, Boston

Attorney for defendant: Withheld

The plaintiff’s shattered dream of being able to sail on tankers as a sea captain generated a verdict of approximately $2.1 million. Although the plaintiff suffered only a minor physical injury of a mild compression fracture of the thoracic vertebra, the jury awarded damages of approximately $500,000 for the plaintiff’s mental anguish for not being able to pursue his chosen career as a sea captain.

The jury awarded $750,000 for the plaintiff’s past pain and suffering and lost wages from the date of the accident, Jan. 19, 1994 to Feb. 20, 1997. Although the award made no specific allocation for past pain and suffering, the plaintiff’s past net lost-wage claim was for only $200,000, presumably making the remaining $550,000 for pain and suffering. Because there was no substantial physical injury or suffering, at least $500,000 of the $550,000 had to be for mental anguish.

The case involved a 33-year-old chief mate who brought suit under the Jones Act for negligence and the general maritime law for unseaworthiness for injuries sustained while he was a crew member of the oil tanker OVERSEAS BOSTON. On Jan. 19, 1994, the plaintiff sustained a mild compression fracture while repairing hydraulic lines in an inflatable life raft in a cargo tank filled with water. A wave developed inside the tank and pushed the raft and the plaintiff up into a deck beam.

Approximately one year later, the fracture healed and the plaintiff returned to work on the defendant’s vessel as chief mate. As chief mate, the plaintiff was required to go into cargo tanks and climb ladders and lift heavy objects. Each time the plaintiff performed these activities, he experienced pain in his back.

Several months after the plaintiff returned to work, he was promoted to captain. As captain, his duties were less strenuous than a chief mate, particularly with respect to going into the tank and climbing ladders and lifting heavy objects.

The plaintiff had now achieved his goal of being a captain of a large tanker. Before sailing, the defendant requested that the plaintiff obtain a duty status report from the treating physician. The report stated that the plaintiff was “capable of doing administrative/captain duties on ships.” The report was sent to the defendant in New York City by fax before the plaintiff left from Maine to join the ship in Oregon.

The plaintiff reported to his assigned vessel and took command as captain. He even went through a change of command ceremony with the ships officers and crew. However, within several hours after the plaintiff took command of the ship, the defendant relieved him, making it probably one of the shortest commands on record. The defendant’s alleged justification for its conduct in relieving the plaintiff of his command was that the treating doctor limited him to doing only administrative/captain duties even though these were the only duties that he was expected to perform. Thereafter, the defendant never offered the plaintiff another command or job again.

In November 1996, the plaintiff went to renew his captain’s license that had been issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Upon reviewing the application, the plaintiff learned that a captain’s license could no longer be renewed if you had any physical limitations. The license now required that a captain be able to do all duties including those of an able-bodied seaman. It was at this time that the plaintiff realized he would never return to sea as a captain.

The plaintiff’s strategy throughout the entire trial was to concentrate on the non-physical injuries. Because the plaintiff’s physical injury was not catastrophic, counsel focused on the intangible damages of loss of enjoyment of activities, hobbies, and most of all, work, particularly since the plaintiff had been groomed as a sea captain from childhood. His ancestors were sea captains dating back to China trade in the 1840’s.

In closing argument, the plaintiff’s theme was the loss of the greatest joy of life – work. The plaintiff said it all when he testified how he felt today as a salesman compared to being a captain of a large tanker. He stated: “The job I am doing now is not the same as a captain. I worked all my life to get where I was. It was something I always wanted. Look at me now – salesman! Mentally/emotionally went from being in command of a huge ship to doing sales. Have to support my family, so starting it over.”

The case is unique in that it illustrates that a large damage award can be obtained even in the absence of any substantial physical injury by focusing on the non-tangible damages.

© 1997 Lawyers Weekly Inc., All Rights Reserved.