Carolyn M. Latti Lawyer of the Year 2001

Lawyers Of The Year 2001 – Carolyn M. Latti
By Marissa Yaremich
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

Carolyn M. Latti loves to use her lawyering skills to shake up the old school mentality that “life on the water” is a men’s-only club.

As the only female attorney in Massachusetts specializing in maritime law, 32-year-old Latti is a quick study who has learned the ropes from one of the “great maritime trial lawyers.” She readily admits her bias, but considers the time she worked alongside her father, veteran attorney Michael B. Latti, as the most important experience she could have had in order to prepare her for the admiralty arena.

His direction, it appears, is starting to pay off.

Within the last year, Latti has not only taken over the family business with her partner and brother-in-law, David F. Anderson, but has managed to successfully draw in the second largest verdict of her career.

Although the judge later overturned the $2.5 million verdict against an Exxon subsidiary, it originally topped the $2 million award the father and daughter duo won for a different fisherman back in 1997.

Because of her successful track record at a young age, Latti is also beginning to get noticed as a sort of “Jones Act maven” when filing for seamen’s claims. Although the Jones Act is nothing new in maritime law, many boat owners would be more than happy to see the courts dispose of it.

Latti, on the other hand, fully supports her injured clients who wish to sue their employers for negligence and strict liability since maritime law does not allow seamen to receive workers’ compensation.

“Fishing is part of them and they would never leave it,” says Latti. It is just something in their blood, she believes, that deserves to have its day in court.

* * *

Q. Admiralty law is such a specialized area of the law. What attracts you to it, and are there many women attorneys practicing it?

A.I am the only woman maritime attorney in Massachusetts. There is one woman who does it occasionally, but she doesn’t specialize in it. Even when I deal with different law firms in other states, there really aren’t a whole lot of women maritime trial lawyers. It is not a women-dominated field to begin with. I’ve seen an occasional woman who is a licensed officer on the tankers, but all of the fishermen are men. A lot of the people I depose think I don’t know much about ships so they talk to me like I don’t know what I am doing. But I go into a deposition knowing everything about an accident and the boat that is involved. From that aspect, the fishermen are very old school as well as from an ethnic background where women just aren’t in these positions. [Therefore,] a woman in this position asking questions is even worse.

Q.So it’s an unconventional practice area for a woman, to say the least…

A.People may think I am crazy, but I also get to go on these 650-foot tankers, tugs and fishing vessels. There is always a new boat, new machinery and equipment, and a new setting. Each case is a huge learning experience [and] that is what makes it so exciting. Nothing is repetitive.

Q.What tend to be the major challenges in bringing a typical maritime case?

A.First of all, learning all the terms is the biggest hurdle. When I first started, for example, I was on a big fishing vessel and on the net there were these 6-by-8 steel [pieces] called “doors.” They attach to the net to help spread it out when it is underwater. When they kept talking about the doors, I kept thinking they were talking about a door to the wheelhouse (laughs). You need to learn first so you can then teach the jury, because the jurors aren’t familiar with it at all. Once you get that, it’s the basics of getting the case together.

Q.Are maritime cases expensive cases to try?

A.Generally they are less expensive to try. There are type of cases where one can try to avoid using liability experts, particularly on a fish case compared to a blue water case. We have actually done tanker cases without liability experts because one could get your liability of the duty of negligence from either the captain or one of the chief mates. We use a lot of 30(b)(6) depositions, which are depositions with the person who has the most knowledge regarding certain issues of a corporation. Then we can avoid calling experts, who in this day and age, charge an arm and a leg. [Also,] experts can hurt you while on the stand because it can always backfire, and it’s always another person for [defense attorneys] to cross-examine.

Q.Are there more boating accident cases out there than people might think?

A.I don’t think there was so much emphasis on boating accidents until “The Perfect Storm” came out. Sinkings [have always] occurred a lot in the fishing industry because it is one of the most dangerous occupations, but now the media has brought them to attention.

Q.Does the media ever hinder you when you are on a vessel working the case?

A.It’s very hard on the families because they don’t want to be bothered by the media. The families have lost loved ones and sometimes there is no body, which makes it worse because without a body it is hard for them to have closure.

Q.When you get a big verdict in an admiralty case, is there usually insurance to collect it or are some of these big verdicts not collectable?

A.Tanker companies, big tugging and big drudging companies are usually self-insured up to millions of dollars so there is no problem [collecting]. When you are dealing with the smaller companies, like fishing vessels, they may have the draw down policy where medical bills and attorneys’ fees are taken out of it. For example, if you get a verdict for $500,000 and the policy was $400,000 to begin with, then it’s the end of the case. Everything draws down from it so [the client] may only get $350,000. You can seize the vessel, but usually the vessel companies are so mortgaged it’s not worth it. It’s not a situation where these owners are required to insure the vessels. Some boat owners have millions of dollars of boat coverage, which it’s okay on that instance, but you never know what the insurance is going to be. That’s makes it worse because a lot of the fishermen are not educated and have worked their whole lives fishing. If they get injured and there is no insurance, then there really are no options except Social Security.

Q.Have you ever lost an admiralty case that you were sure you were going to win?

A.It was a fisherman who was lost overboard two years ago. He was standing on the side of the vessel, on the rail, and was fixing a piece of equipment. He fell overboard and was fine, but [when] the boat turned around to pick him up it wasn’t in neutral. He basically got pulled under the propeller. We had several theories: He shouldn’t have been on top of the rail; the captain didn’t stop a dangerous operation; [and] they didn’t do the right man-overboard procedures. It was a two-week trial and the general feeling is that juries are very generous before Christmas. We were hoping that mood would come in and find for the plaintiff, but they found for the defendant. We still haven’t gotten over it. The jury just was not giving. It’s very difficult in death cases because the witnesses get together and the story is formed and that’s it. It’s hard when you don’t have a plaintiff to get up on the stand and rebut everything they say.

Q.Have you ever won a case you were sure you were going to lose?

A.The first case I tried with my father [laughs]. That was a man who had injured his finger. Liability was extremely tough. He wasn’t a very likable person. He was chewing gum on the stand. It was two years post-accident and he would hold up his hand as if it were in such pain so the jury could always look at it. The jury was out for two days on that one. We just didn’t think we were going to win. The verdict was approximately $265,000 and then was reduced to $220,000.

Q.You are working on the case involving the Russian ship, the M/T Virgo, which ran into the fishing boat from Massachusetts, the FV Starbound, which became a major news story in Boston this year. What liability issues are you focusing on?

A.We have two cases pending. One is in Massachusetts against the tanker company, the Virgo. The other one is in Maine for a limitation liability proceeding and that is where everybody is who is involved in this collision. The limitation is a very antiquated aspect of maritime law. It is where the owner of a vessel can limit his liability to the value of the vessel. In this case, the value of the Starbound is $0 because it is at the bottom of the ocean. It’s a much higher standard than [other cases because] we have to prove that the owner had privity or knowledge of unseaworthiness and that an unseaworthy condition existed at the time the vessel left the dock. In the case of the Starbound, the captain was part owner so you were able to prove privity easily. When you have a collision, there are basically rules of the road. The Starbound basically had the right of way up until the point of and had to take measures to prevent the collision. It will focus on the Virgo’s failure to follow the rules regarding the operation at sea. Also, one of the big issues is whether the paint samples off of the boats match. It appears they do. That’s a huge smoking gun. What this case is basically going to come down to is not what the witnesses say, but what the documents are because [the boats] have the course recorders, which track the vessel and every move it makes. We will be able to recreate it even if we are never able to take depositions from the captain of the Virgo, who is in Newfoundland right now, and the [other] two crew-members facing criminal charges. The criminal case could last another year to a year-and-a-half.

Q.You’ve been somewhat of a Jones Act “maven” these days, winning several large verdicts using this law. Explain when this law applies.

A.The client has to be what is called a Jones Act seaman. That includes basically anyone who works on a boat – even cruise ships and water taxis. By being a seaman, that enables you to sue your employer for any injury that you have. The whole thing with maritime injuries is the fishermen don’t get workers’ compensation. That is why they are able to sue their employer. They get what is called maintenance and cure, which is a payment of their medical bills and a stipend, which is usually $15 to $20 per day. The maintenance and cure ends when the fisherman reaches his medical endpoint. With the Jones Act, negligence is a feather-light standard. No matter how slight the standards of causation, you still have to prove proximate cause. The employers want to get rid of the act.

Q.Is there a rise in negligence amongst ship employers that paves the way for this law to be used more frequently?

A.There are two different industries: the fishing vessels and the blue water. A lot of fishing vessels were sold because of the closing of the grounds. A lot of boats weren’t the best outfitted so there are not as many accidents on boats that have defective equipment. It is still the same amount of injuries in blue water. It also depends on the policy of a company. Some are out to make a profit over safety. You see that a lot more with the fishing boats because they won’t risk losing the money from fishing by hauling the boat out and fixing it. These Band-Aid repairs make it more dangerous because those repairs never stay for very long. Yet if you go through life being a fisherman with out getting hurt at least once – it’s a miracle.

Q.Why has the Jones Act been particularly useful for you and your clients in recent cases?

A.It is used every time we bring a case under general maritime law for unseaworthiness, which is when you have to prove that a piece of equipment on the vessel was not fit for its intended purpose. Whatever suit we bring, we bring those two counts. It’s very helpful in a case to get to the jury if your liability is not as strong because of this feather-light standard. What is also great about the Jones Act is in regards to contributory negligence. It doesn’t cut off at 50 percent. If it’s 55 percent, the plaintiff can still recover.

Q.Have you seen any improvements and/or trends in the Jones Act over the past few years?

A.It’s gone the opposite way. One can see from the Supreme Court cases the great language that protects seamen because they are engaged in such a dangerous occupation. I would say lately the courts’ trend is to go away from protecting the seamen and more towards taking away their rights and remedies. For example, the issue of taking away the type of damages.

Q.Do you believe a lawyer can make a living trying cases with the Jones Act?

A.Yes, but it’s very dependent upon the fishing industry. The closing of the fishing grounds have definitely cut down the number of cases [and] legislation affects it as well. [Latti & Associates] has spread out a lot more in regards to taking cases in other states. Some of the reasons are because seamen live here, but their companies are in [another state], but we have spread out a lot more because of the industry. It’s kind of cyclical because now the industry is rebounding.

Q.How did you get to be such a player in the admiralty field at such a relatively young age?

A.(Laughs.) I had the tremendous opportunity to leave the firm [Lynch, Brewer, Hoffman & Sands] doing antitrust to work with my father. I got the experience and my father taught me by trying cases with him and then by trying my own cases. He just threw me in and taught me how to swim. If I fell, I fell, but that is the only way you learn. It’s unique and the challenge really does get me fired up.