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Louisiana Boating Accidents: Punitive Damages Available Under General Maritime Law

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently resolved, in a 5-4 decision, a long-running legal dispute flowing from a boating accident that occurred in 2005. See Warren v. Shelter Mutual Ins. Co., No. 2016-C-1647 (La. Supreme Court October 18, 2017).

Louisiana Maritime Law: Facts of the Case

In May of 2005, a young man named Derek Hebert was killed in a maritime accident. He was a passenger in a recreational boat being driven on a former channel of the Calcasieu River. As the boat was on plane, that is, travelling at a sufficiently high rate of speed to cause the hull to rise out of the water, the SeaStar hydraulic steering system manufactured by one of the defendants, Teleflex, Inc., suddenly failed. The boat turned violently and ejected Hebert and the four other passengers. As the boat spun wildly in the water, its propeller struck Hebert 19 times, resulting in his death.

Mr. Hebert’s parents sued many defendants under general maritime law and the Louisiana Products Liability Act for the wrongful death of their son. With respect to product liability, the plaintiffs alleged that Teleflex had failed to warn of an alleged inherent danger of its SeaStar steering system. The post-accident investigation determined that the boat lost its steering because of a hydraulic oil/fluid leak in one of the system’s hydraulic lines at a hose/nut or coupling assembly. A loss of fluid in the hydraulic system, even a small fluid loss, can cause loss of steering. The plaintiffs alleged that the steering system was inherently dangerous and that Teleflex failed to give sufficient warning of how fluid loss can lead to loss of steering, ejectment, and even death.

The investigation also showed that one of the original Teleflex hoses had been replaced by someone with a non-Teleflex hydraulic hose. Teleflex argued that use of the non-Teleflex hose was the cause of the leak, not an inherent defect in the design of the SeaStar system.

The case went to jury in 2014. After various motions for directed verdict were granted, Teleflex was left as the only defendant. The jury returned a verdict of no liability on the part of Teleflex. However, the trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion for new trial based on what it believed to be prejudicial error during the first trial.

Following the second trial, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff and against Teleflex for failure to warn, awarding compensatory damages of $125,000 and punitive damages of $23 million. The jury verdict was affirmed by the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal and, just recently, by the Louisiana Supreme Court. The case presents many interesting legal questions, particularly those related to whether the second trial should have been granted. However, this article will focus on the legal issues discussed with respect to punitive damages.

Louisiana Maritime Law: Punitive Damages are Available Under General Maritime Law

Affirming what many Court of Appeal cases have held, in Warren, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that punitive damages are available under general maritime law in Louisiana. Specifically, the court stated that “[p]unitive damages are available as a remedy in general maritime actions where a defendant’s intentional or wanton and reckless conduct amounted to a conscious disregard for the rights of others.”

Louisiana Maritime Law: Punitive Damages Were Warranted Against Teleflex

Not only did the court hold that punitive damages are available under general maritime law in New Orleans and Louisiana, the court held that the evidence was sufficient to warrant imposing punitive damages against Teleflex. In particular, the court held that the jury had sufficient evidence to support a finding that Teleflex had acted recklessly in failing to place on the steering system a visible sticker warning that loss of fluid could result in sudden loss of steering, ejection, and even death.

The court focused on the following facts:

  • Teleflex had done testing showing that a small fluid loss could result in total loss of steering control — the loss was demonstrated at trial to be 3.2 teaspoons of lost fluid
  • Teleflex knew this 16 years prior to the accident and nine years before this particular SeaStar system was sold
  • Teleflex claimed that the system would not leak, but evidence showed that Teleflex had received “thousands of complaints” about fluid loss
  • It was well-known in the industry that loss of steering can result in ejection, severe injury and death
  • Teleflex made no warnings advising of the risk
  • The jury heard testimony that Teleflex avoided putting a warning sticker on the steering system to avoid “hysteria” among its customers
  • Standards for warnings of this nature — established in 1991 — mandated clear warnings on the steering system itself

The court held these facts to show that Teleflex had a conscious disregard for the safety of its customers.

Louisiana Maritime Law

If you need additional information, contact Louisiana defense attorney Kristin M. Lausten. Ms. Lausten has experience in maritime law and defends complex tort litigation in both state and federal courts. She can be contacted at 504.377.6585 or via email at kristin@kristinlausten.com.

The author may be contacted at:

Kristin M. Lausten

New Orleans, Louisiana
Telephone: 504.377.6585
E-mail: kristin@kristinlausten.com
Web: www.kristinlausten.com

This article is provided as an educational service for general informational purposes only. The material does not constitute legal advice or rendering of professional services.