In a somewhat recent maritime law decision, three fishermen set sail aboard a fishing boat. Apparently, there was no written agreement memorializing the terms of their maritime employment. It seemed that the voyage was successful and the boat returned to port with a mess of scallops that ultimately yielded a six-figure gross. The fishermen were each paid a portion of the boat's net proceeds. Sometime later the fishermen sued alleging various violations arising from the voyage including the lack of a written agreement. In addition to compensatory damages, the fishermen sought punitive damages for what was alleged to be egregious conduct.
The appellate court examined each of the issues and ultimately affirmed (meaning upheld) the lower court's decision which had awarded a very small adjustment to one of the fishermen and had rejected all of the other claims. In connection with the punitive damages claim, the appellate court stated that the fish boat owner's violation of the statutory obligation to have a writing in place with the crew (the existence of which it was unaware) could not support such a claim. Specifically, the Court pointed out that the crew was paid under a lay-share system and that the violation was simply the lack of a fixed written employment contract.
The statute requiring, in some instances, that a written fishing agreement be in place before undertaking a voyage can be found at 46 U.S.C. § 10601. Contact a U.S. maritime lawyer if you have questions or concerns about the unique facts and circumstances of your wage penalty or admiralty claim.
By John Fulweiler