Karen Hildebrandt recently handled a claim where
a seaman alleged he sustained personal injuries during
the course of his employment aboard a Member’s
vessel after two weeks of employment. He brought
suit in the Texas Federal Court demanding recovery
for various items of damages including loss of
future earning capacity.
Defense counsel learned during discovery that the
plaintiff had brought at least two previous lawsuits
against other shipping companies, wherein he claimed,
and recovered for, loss of future earning capacity.
In the first lawsuit, the case was tried resulting in an
award for future lost earnings. Evidence in the case
included the seaman’s treating physician testifying
the seaman could not return to work at sea because
of the physical requirements of the job as well as his
economist testifying as to his future economic loss.
The decision was appealed by the shipowner who
noted the award for future lost wages was based on
false testimony as the seaman had already returned
to work as a seaman. However, the appeals court
affirmed the judgement.
The second lawsuit was settled prior to trial. The
settlement agreement signed by the parties specifically
set out an amount for loss of future earning capacity.
Counsel handling the Member’s defense filed a
motion for partial summary judgment arguing that
the legal theory of collateral estoppel applied and
the seaman cannot recover for loss of future earning
capacity as he had already litigated and recovered
for same in two previous cases.
Collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, is
a legal doctrine which prevents the relitigation of
the same issue in subsequent lawsuits once an issue
has been determined by a court. Counsel argued that
the issue of loss of future earning capacity is identical
to the issue litigated in the two previous actions, in
that plaintiff was again claiming he would be unable
to return to his previous employment as a seaman and
sought a determination of his future earning capacity.
The issue of future economic loss was fully litigated
during a 4 day trial as well as an appeal. As counsel
argued, to allow the seaman to again litigate a claim
for future loss of earning capacity could result in a
potential triple recovery for the seaman and encourage
litigious behavior, unfairly prejudicing the Member.
Unfortunately the judge did not issue a separate
written decision solely on the motion. He considered
the motion during the trial of this case, which
resulted in a defense verdict. However, the Bodily
Injury Team is on the lookout for similar cases where
the issue of collateral estoppel can again be raised
by motion and hopefully favorably decided.