Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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In 1998, al Qaeda operatives detonated truck bombs outside the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Victims sued the Republic of Sudan under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA, 28 U.S.C. 1605(a)(7)), which included a bar on punitive damages for suits under any of the sovereign immunity exceptions. In 2008, Congress amended the FSIA in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). NDAA section 1083(c)(2) creates a cause of action for acts of terror that provides for punitive damages; it gave effect to existing lawsuits that had been “adversely affected” by prior law “as if” they had been originally filed under the new section 1605A(c). Section 1083(c)(3) provided a time-limited opportunity for plaintiffs to file new actions “arising out of the same act or incident” as an earlier action and claim those benefits. The plaintiffs amended their complaint to include section 1605A(c) claims. The district court awarded the plaintiffs approximately $10.2 billion, including roughly $4.3 billion in punitive damages. The D.C. Circuit held that the plaintiffs were not entitled to punitive damages because Congress had included no statement in NDAA section 1083 clearly authorizing punitive damages for pre-enactment conduct.The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. Even assuming that Sudan may claim the benefit of the presumption of prospective effect, Congress was as clear as it could have been when it expressly authorized punitive damages under section 1605A(c) and explicitly made that new cause of action available to remedy certain past acts of terrorism. The court of appeals must also reconsider its decision concerning the availability of punitive damages for state law claims. View "Opati v. Republic of Sudan" on Justia Law

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Batterton was working on a Dutra vessel when a hatch blew open and injured his hand. Batterton sued Dutra, asserting various claims, including unseaworthiness, and seeking general and punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of Dutra’s motion to dismiss the claim for punitive damages: The Supreme Court reversed. A plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. Precedent establishes that the Court “should look primarily to . . . legislative enactments for policy guidance” when exercising its inherent common-law authority over maritime and admiralty cases. Overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act) codified the rights of injured mariners by incorporating the rights provided to railway workers under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA); FELA damages were strictly compensatory. The Court noted that unseaworthiness in its current strict-liability form is the Court’s own invention, coming after enactment of the Jones Act. A claim of unseaworthiness is a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim. It would exceed the objectives of pursuing policies found in congressional enactments and promoting uniformity between maritime statutory law and maritime common law to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those provided by Congress in similar areas. Allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would also create bizarre disparities in the law and would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen. View "Dutra Group v. Batterton" on Justia Law

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Manufacturers produced equipment for three Navy ships. The equipment required asbestos insulation or asbestos parts to function as intended, but the manufacturers did not always incorporate the asbestos into their products, so the Navy later added the asbestos. Two Navy veterans, exposed to asbestos on the ships, developed cancer. They sued the manufacturers. The manufacturers argued that they should not be liable for harms caused by later-added third-party parts.The Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit in rejecting summary judgment for the manufacturers. The Court adopted a rule between the “foreseeability” approach and the “bare-metal defense,” that is "especially appropriate in the context of maritime law, which has always recognized a ‘special solicitude for the welfare’ of sailors." Requiring a warning in these circumstances will not impose a significant burden on manufacturers, who already have a duty to warn of the dangers of their own products. A manufacturer must provide a warning only when it knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses and has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger. The rule applies only if the manufacturer directs that the part be incorporated; the manufacturer makes the product with a part that the manufacturer knows will require replacement with a similar part; or a product would be useless without the part. View "Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries" on Justia Law

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Loos sued BNSF under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act for injuries he received while working at BNSF’s railyard. A jury awarded him $126,212.78, ascribing $30,000 to lost wages. BNSF asserted that the lost wages constituted “compensation” taxable under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA) and asked to withhold $3,765 of the $30,000. The district court and the Eighth Circuit rejected the requested offset. The Supreme Court reversed. A railroad’s payment to an employee for work time lost due to an on-the-job injury is taxable “compensation” under the RRTA. RRTA refers to the railroad’s contribution as an “excise” tax, 26 U. S. C. 3221, and the employee’s share as an “income” tax, section 3201. Taxes under the RRTA and benefits under the Railroad Retirement Act, 45 U.S.C. 231, are measured by the employee’s “compensation,” which both statutes define as “any form of money remuneration paid to an individual for services rendered as an employee.” The Court noted similar results under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act and the Social Security Act. View "BNSF Railway Co. v. Loos" on Justia Law