Massachusetts lawyer navigates maritime law’s rocky shoals to aid injured sailors

By Nora Lockwood Tooher
Staff writer

Boston- Growing up, there were two things Carolyn M. Latti loved doing: sailing and working at her father’s law firm.

From the time she was a young girl until she was 18, Latti spent several weeks each summer learning and then later teaching how to sail at a camp on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Once she started college, she spent her vacations and breaks working for her father, a personal injury lawyer who specialized in maritime law. Latti would run errands, answer the phones, make copies and do whatever else she could around the office.

After she graduated from Suffolk Law School in Boston in 1994, she worked briefly in securities law. But within a year, she was back at her father’s firm, this time as a colleague.

“Working with my father was the best. How often do you get to be taught by, in my opinion, one of the greatest lawyers in the maritime field, who is also your father?” she said.

In the courtroom, Carolyn would watch her father Michael B. Latti, arguing on behalf of injured seamen. When it was her turn, her dad would critique her, and pass on his courtroom insight.

Her father retired and became of counsel in 1999, but the firm stayed in the family. Carolyn Latti partnered with her brother-in-law, David Anderson, to form Latti & Anderson. The firm employs another lawyer, as well as a full time investigator.

Originally, most of the firm’s clients were New England fishermen. But as the region’s fishing industry declined, the firm cast a wider net. It now represents clients throughout the country who have been injured or killed in maritime accidents.

The client roster includes merchant seamen, longshoremen, dock workers, tug boat and barge operators, terminal employees, and cruise ship workers and passengers.

Latti, 38, is the only woman maritime trial lawyer in Massachusetts, a status she attributes to both the unique nature of maritime law and the rigors of trial work.

On a recent morning, Latti, who is petite, with long dark hair, is dressed in a stylish, belted black suit, and looking more like a corporate lawyer than someone who climbs aboard tugs and tankers investigating shipboard accidents.

But her office on Boston’s waterfront is that of a sea-lover. Prints of the 1904 America’s Cup race, a painting of a 19th Century schooner and photos of Boston’s fishing pier in the 1920s hang on the walls. A brass telescope sits on a table near floor-to-ceiling windows so she can watch the ships as they come into port.

Laws of the sea

Personal injury maritime law is a distinct body of law based on English law, the Jones Act of 1920- which allows crew members to sue ship owners for negligence- and several other statutes defining ship owner liability.

Much of the law is outdated, according to Latti, such as the Limitation of Liability Act, which was enacted before most ship owners had insurance. It limited the owner’s liability to the value of the ship at the end of the voyage. That means that if a ship goes down, it may be worth nothing, even though it was insured for millions of dollars.

“It’s antiquated because everybody has insurance,” Latti said.

One of the statute’s quirks is that it allows the ship owner to sue those injured by the vessel. So, families of seamen who drown “usually get these letters in the mail addressed to their deceased husband or son that says, ‘We are bringing a lawsuit,’” said Latti.

It’s then up to the plaintiffs to prove that the owner had prior knowledge of the ship’s unseaworthiness or dangerous conditions aboard ship.

But despite the restrictions of maritime law, Latti and her colleagues have won significant verdicts and settlements:

  • A $2 million settlement in U.S. District Court in Boston in January 2005 for a scallop boat crew member who was scalped and crushed when a 20-ton block fell on him.
  • A $5.3 million verdict in November 2005 in U.S. District Court in Maine for a tugboat crew member who fell 14 feet down an open hatch.
  • A $2.45 million settlement, also in Maine that same month, for a seaman whose leg was ripped off when it got tangled in a line as the ship cast off in Oman.

While the accidents may take place around the world, as long as the clients were U.S. citizens and the ship was flying a U.S. flag the litigation can take place in the United States. Latti and her colleagues are licensed in several states in the Northeast, and have been admitted pro hac vice in other jurisdictions.

Latti said one of the most disturbing aspects of maritime law is that damages are often lower in wrongful death cases than in accidents in which the crew member survives. Spouses and children of a seaman who dies at sea are entitled to pecuniary damages for loss of support. Claims can also be filed for the conscious pain and suffering the victim experienced before dying of hypothermia or drowning.

Maritime law in this aspect is very cold, because a lot of the time we have seamen who die and they’re single and have no children, and their life is worth only conscious pain and suffering,” Latti said.

The parents of an 18-year-old who was killed when he fell off a schooner mast, for example, recently received only a $250,000 settlement.

“If he died on land, the parents would get money for losing their son, but because he died on water, they don’t,” she said.

Vanished ships

Discovery in a maritime case often involves visiting the ship, armed with cameras and accompanied by an accident expert.

But when a boat sinks, it’s a lot harder to reconstruct what happened.

The firm is currently representing the families of three crew members aboard the Flying Colors, a sailboat that sank last May in the mid-Atlantic. All that was recovered was the boat’s emergency radio signal, which went off automatically when it hit the water.

“They encountered a storm, and the vessel sank and was never heard from,” Latti said.

In a case like that, discovery involves interviewing crew members who were on the vessel beforehand to find out if there were problems with the boat. Often, the firm will subpoena repair records and try to get as much information as possible about conditions on the boat.

When there are survivors, they are questioned about what happened. But sometimes, survivors are reluctant to talk for fear of blaming someone for the tragedy. Or, they may simply have no memory of the disaster.

“You just try to get what you can and try to put the pieces together,” Latti said.

When she’s not at trial, Latti is often traveling around the country, deposing witnesses and unraveling shipboard catastrophes. Her husband, Jack Milmoe, is an attorney who became a stay-at-home dad to take care of their three children, ages 2 to 6.

When Latti is in Boston, she tries to work at home as much as she can. And she tells her children about what happened to the people she represents – the same way her father used to talk to her about his work.

“I always tell them about the case – what happened to the person,” she said. “I think it makes it easier for them to understand what I do.”