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Boating / Watercraft

New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium v. West Virginia University

People involved in boating accidents often do not appreciate how the complexities of admiralty and maritime law may interfere with their right to fair compensation. Such was the case for the family of Michael Stanley of Parkersburg, West Virginia. Mr. Stanley was a graduate student at West Virginia University (WVU) working aboard a research vessel on the Hudson River on June 18, 1998, when the vessel capsized and Mr. Stanley drowned. Following the tragedy, Mr. Stanley’s family could not get a straight answer out of WVU or the owner of the vessel, New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium (NJMSC). As is common is these situations, both of these entities blamed the other for Mr. Stanley’s drowning and neither would accept any responsibility for Mr. Stanley’s death.

Mr. Stanley’s parents, Richard and Dorthy Stanley, retained Heavens Law Firm to get to the truth about what happened to their son. Not long after the Stanleys met with Chris Heavens, NJMSC filed a Limitation of Liability Action in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, seeking to have the Court declare that all damages, including damages for the wrongful death of Mr. Stanley, be limited to the value of the vessel, which was about $25,000. The invocation of the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§181 – 196 (“Limitation Act”), left the Stanley family shocked, confused, and upset that NJMSC was essentially suing them (NJMSC argued that Mr. Stanley was an agent of WVU) and asserting that their son’s life was worth no more than $25,000.

Because of the action taken by NJMSC, West Virginia University immediately took the legal position that Mr. Stanley was an employee of WVU and thus WVU was entitled to workers compensation immunity (meaning Mr. Stanley’s family could not sue WVU). This position by WVU was disturbing to the Stanley family, since WVU had done nothing to train graduate students for dealing with an emergency while on board a research vessel and since there were no life jackets available to Mr. Stanley at the time the boat capsized. Incredibly, WVU had no policy requiring its graduate students to wear life jackets while on research vessels.

Heavens Law Firm immediately took action in response to the positions of NJMSC and WVU. First, a vessel owner, pursuant to the Limitation Act, is not entitled to limit its liability when the loss occurred due to its “privity or knowledge.” 46 U.S.C. App. §183(a). In other words, privity or knowledge will be found to exist where the acts of negligence or unseaworthiness that caused the casualty were known or should have been know by the vessel owner. Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7 (5th Cir. 1976), rehearing denied 532 F.2d 1375 (5th Cir. 1976). Heavens Law Firm argued that the vessel was unseaworthy because when the fish net became snagged on an underwater obstruction, there was no breakaway feature to free the vessel and prevent it from capsizing. Heavens Law Firm also argued that the absence of readily available life jackets made the vessel unseaworthy (NJMSC argued that life jackets were stowed and Mr. Stanley had the option to wear a life jacket). As for WVU, Heavens Law Firm invoked West Virginia’s Intentional Tort Statute against WVU, arguing that the conduct of WVU in failing to train students for work out on the water and failure to require students to wear life jackets amounted to egregious misconduct of such a magnitude so as to void workers compensation immunity. Heavens Law Firm also argued that Mr. Stanley was not an employee of WVU in the legal definition contained in case law (graduate students were provided a stipend, so WVU did have a credible argument on this point).

Despite all of the legal obstacles thrown at the Stanley family, Heavens Law Firm was able to reach a substantial six figure confidential settlement with the parties, which was well in excess of the limitation of liability figure. However, the Stanley Family’s experience with our legal system compounded the grief they experienced in losing their son in such a preventable tragedy. For all those people who believe that corporations and insurance companies need laws passed to prevent victims from holding corporations and insurance companies accountable, talk to the Stanley family.

The experience of the Stanley family is not an isolated incident. Insurance companies are now wielding the Limitation Act as a sword. The Act applies to all “seagoing vessels, and also to all vessels used on lakes or rivers or in inland navigation, including canal boats, barges, and lighters.” 46 U.S.C. App. §186. The term vessel has recently been enlarged by the U.S. Supreme Court in Stewart v. Dutra Const. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 125 S.Ct. 1118 (2005). Owners of pleasure craft, including jet skis and house boats, are permitted to limit liability.Keys Jet Ski, Inc. v. Kays, 893 F.2d 1225 (11th Cir. 1990); Warnken v. Moody, 22 F.2d 960, 962 (5thCir.1927); In re Guglielmo, 704 F.Supp. 352 (E.D.N.Y.1989) (twenty-one foot motor boat).

If you, a family member or a friend are harmed in a boating or jet ski accident, you should retain a lawyer immediately to help you overcome the evasive actions of wrongdoers and their insurance companies that is surely to follow.

*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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