In Bisso v Inland Waterways Corp the Supreme Court held that clauses in towage contracts that release the tug owner from all liability from its own negligence are invalid as they contravene public policy. Since then, the courts have struggled with the extent to which Bisso precludes exculpatory clauses in towage contracts. However, Bisso has been widely criticised and the courts have circumvented it by creating various exceptions.
Can seafarers recover punitive damages from non-employer third parties under the general maritime law? Short answer: it depends on where you are. A recent Circuit Court of the City of Chesapeake, Virginia case is the latest example of inconsistent rulings on the availability of punitive damages under the general maritime law.
Under general maritime law, a vessel owner is entitled to the reasonable cost of repair of the vessel, unless this cost exceeds the pre-incident value of the vessel. But can the vessel owner also recover the post-repair loss of market value associated with so-called 'stigma' damages simply because the vessel was repaired following a maritime collision? The court in a recent case answered this question in the negative.
The court recently assumed that passengers aboard a charter fishing vessel were within the 'zone of danger', but still dismissed their claims based on insufficient evidence of injury. According to the court, mere presence in the zone of danger, without more, is insufficient to support a claim for purely emotional injuries under the general maritime law. In short, if you want the court to believe that you have genuine, compensable, emotional injuries, see a medical professional.
The Ninth Circuit recently held that punitive damages are available to seafarers who sustain injuries from unseaworthy conditions under the general maritime law. In doing so, it rejected a previous Fifth Circuit decision. The decision appears to suggest that if an owner knows of the unseaworthiness but does nothing, it is immune from punitive damages; yet, if an owner knows nothing, it may still be subject to punitive damages if the unseaworthy condition is sufficiently egregious in the opinion of the court.