As has been discussed on this blog, a number of Courts—including the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the DE Maritime—have recently held that maritime law may apply to claims brought by former Navy sailors who allege exposure to asbestos while performing maintenance work on ships while at sea. Now, the Supreme Court of Virginia, in John Crane, Inc. v. Hardick, has held that parties bringing such claims under maritime law on behalf of deceased Navy sailors may be limited in the damages they can recover. In the March 2, 2012 opinion, available here, the Court held that a Virginia trial court erred by allowing a jury to award non-pecuniary damages to the widow of a former Navy sailor who died as a result of mesothelioma. A summary of the case follows.
Robert Hardick served in the Navy from 1957 to 1976 as a machinery repairman aboard various ships. He allegedly worked with asbestos-containing gaskets and packing products used in connection with valves, pumps, and other equipment on the ships. Mr. Hardick performed work on ships while they were in shipyards in territorial waters, and also worked on the ships while they were underway at sea, such as during several trips to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and during a 13-month cruise to the Mediterranean.
The Case and Verdict:
In 2007, Mr. Hardick was diagnosed with mesothelioma and filed suit against a number of product and equipment manufacturers, including John Crane. Mr. Hardick died in 2009 during the pendency of his action, which was revived as a wrongful death claim by his wife, who is also the administratrix of his estate. The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount $5,977,482. The verdict consisted of:
- $2 million for Mr. Hardick’s pain and suffering;
- $1.15 million for Mrs. Hardick’s loss of society;
- $2.5 million for Mrs. Hardick’s expected loss of Mr. Hardick’s income; and
- $327,482 for funeral and medical expenses.
After the verdict, John Crane filed a motion arguing, among other things, that the non-pecuniary portion of the verdict should be vacated. At issue were the $2 million for Mr. Hardick’s pain and suffering and $1.15 million for Mrs. Hardick’s loss of society. The trial court denied the motion, a decision that was appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia and overturned.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s Opinion:
The Court made two rulings in its decision, which are best understood by examining the second ruling first. The Court concluded its opinion by holding that in wrongful death actions brought under maritime law, the estate of a seaman is limited to recovery of pecuniary losses, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990). The Court rejected Mrs. Hardick’s argument that non-pecuniary losses were recoverable under a “common law” or general maritime law cause of action, even though non-pecuniary damages may be barred under either the Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) or