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Suits for Sailors: Maritime Lawsuits I Wish I Could File

I like depositions and trials. I like the clarity that comes from the pressure. But to pepper questions in the boardroom or press a witness in the courtroom, you need a lawsuit. We file lawsuits for yachties, merchant mariners, passengers and anyone else injured working on or around the sea . . . but that doesn't mean a maritime lawyer can't dream. Here are some lawsuits I'd like to file if the opportunity arose; I call these "suits for sailors."

The blue water ocean carriers always give me pause. They'll dump containers overboard littering the oceans with hazards (a lot of these containers float) and yet keep chugging to port seemingly without penalty. Why is this accepted? I'd like to file a lawsuit on behalf of a sailor that strikes a floating container. We'd maybe sue the ocean carrier, the shipper and the consignee because it's time this behavior gets checked. Maybe too, I'd sue the ship's Protection & Indemnity Club (the cozy insuring cooperative ship owners form to swaddle themselves in shared liability) under a legal theory I'll keep to myself for now. And we're very good at finding jurisdictional bases for bringing suit in the USA so I'm confident we'd get a claim rolling and maybe mitigate this mayhem. I'd relish the deposition of the super-cargo (the rep aboard ship with knowledge of what's being carried and how) because the depositions we take aren't linear or nice – rather, we take depositions in pursuit of full and complete justice because partial justice is no justice at all.

Next, outboard motors. I once heard a rumor (and that's exactly what it was) that outboard motors are marketed at a horsepower rating that's not consistent with the engine's actual horsepower. It's complete speculation on my part and I'm spit-balling (a'la QB Aaron Rodgers and his 500 pages of vaccine 'research'), but if this was proven true, I see the potential for liability. It might not be a strict maritime action, but it's got a salty flavor and it interests me.

The placement of running lights is not something the U.S. Coast Guard expects a boat builder to leave to the designer. There are specific requirements for running lights with talk of angles and visibility distances. This is technical, not freehand stuff. With this background, consider my next dream suit: a claim against a recreational boat manufacturer for selling boats with running lights that don't comply with the law. I don't know if any such situations exist, but I'm betting they do. Is it a class action? Maybe. Class actions aren't easy to get into the air (I've brought one) and they require certain critical factors that include numerosity (sufficient claimants) and commonality of the injury (meaning the injury is the same across the board). That is, class actions for an errant surcharge are classic because everyone suffers the same injury, but class actions because everyone suffered a manifold failure on the same engine are tougher because the cause of the crack could vary. Whatever the case, I've been noodling this lawsuit for a long time and think it's probably class-actionable.

Bilge pump ratings give the aisle-shopping sailor a measure of confidence. However, in the voice of Captain Haddock: "Blistering barnacles, it says 2,000 gallons an hour, but my feet are wet!!!" Bilge pump ratings are one thing, but their actual performance is subject to many variables like the height the pump has to push the water upwards ("lift"), fitting size and even the friction from the corrugated "typical" bilge pump hosing. So as I understand things, the 2,000 GPH might actually discharge a much smaller volume of water. For an industry intent in welcoming the novice boater to the shorefront, this seems confusing and dangerous. And for a maritime lawyer who likes the courtroom, this seems like a potential lawsuit.

Finally, I'd like to file suit (or get a ruling in a suit) upending a protest committee's findings. There's case law holding such committee findings are sometimes binding in civil actions. That can prove potentially devastating in a subsequent suit to recover for injuries or property damage. Let's face it, most protest hearings occur shortly after the race, skippers are still leaking seawater as they try and explain who was where, when and how it happened. Rarely, in my opinion, do protest hearings give the participants a fair opportunity to present their claims and defenses. A better approach seems to be for the court to take committee findings into consideration. It should be persuasive evidence, maybe. Heck, if we need to find common ground, how about we settle for a rebuttable presumption allowing a party to introduce evidence showing the findings aren't reliable?

Suit happy, you say? Not at all. I'm just a big believer that tort lawyers help keep businesses honest. Each of these speculative lawsuits reflect attention to issues which aren't helping society.

Underway and making way.

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