Maritime Accidents: What statutes of limitation apply?
June 21st, 2011
The Uniform Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts
The Uniform Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts provides a general three year statute of limitations barring claims arising from injury or death occurring on navigable waters during a traditional maritime activity three years after the cause of action accrues. The Uniform Statute applies to actions under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act, as well as to claims by seamen for injuries based on unseaworthiness of a vessel and claims arising under general maritime tort law. 46 U.S.C.A. § 30106 formerly at 46 U.S.C.A § 763a. The bar of the Uniform Statute is apparently unaffected by the plaintiff’s age, bankruptcy, or other condition that might traditionally toll limitation statutes. Davis v. Newpark Shipbuilding & Repair, Inc., 659 F. Supp. 155, 156-57 (E.D. Tex. 1987). The Uniform Statute embodies Congress’ intent, as expressed in the legislative history and as confirmed by the courts, to establish a uniform limitation period for maritime torts. Butler v. American Trawler Co., 887 F.2d 20, 21 (1st Cir. 1989).
By its terms, the Uniform Statute applies to all suits for personal injury and death “arising out of a maritime tort.” A tort becomes a maritime tort when it occurs anywhere on navigable waters, Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995), and bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. Id.
Federal & State Jurisdiction in Maritime Tort Claims
Maritime torts invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction, and with admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law. Id. Without exception, state and federal courts have held that the Uniform Statute, as an integral part of substantive admiralty law, must be applied to all maritime tort claims regardless of the forum in which those claims are asserted. Butler v. American Trawler Co., 887 F.2d 20, 21 (1st Cir. 1989), Davis v. Newpark Shipbuilding & Repair, Inc., 659 F. Supp. 155, 156-57 (E.D. Tex. 1987), Anderson v. Varco Int’l, Inc., 905 S.W.2d 26, 29 (Tex. Ct. App. 1995), Anderson v. Diamond M-Odeco, Inc., 912 S.W.2d 371, 372-73 (Tex. Ct. App. 1995). The Uniform Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts, unlike most ordinary statutes of limitation, cannot be avoided simply by choosing one forum over another because the statute governs maritime tort claims regardless of the forum in which they are asserted. Not only does the Uniform Statute establish the applicable limitation period, but it also completely displaces and supplants state law tolling provisions that might otherwise extend the limitation period.
Maintenance & Cure By the 3-Year Uniform Statute
Although action for maintenance and cure arises under the general maritime law, the courts have not definitively determined that it is strictly governed by the three-year Uniform Statute. Thus the action for maintenance and cure is still governed by laches, but litigants can expect the court to treat the three-year time limit as a benchmark for laches; the burden of proof will be on the plaintiff to show his delay was reasonable and did not prejudice the defendant. Armstrong v. Trico Marine, Inc., 923 F.2d 55 (5th Cir.1991). Although the doctrine of laches applies to suits for maintenance and cure, serial suits to collect benefits as they accrue are permitted. Cooper v. Diamond M Co., 799 F.2d 176 (5th Cir.1986); Pelotto v. L & N Towing Co., 604 F.2d 396, 401 (5th Cir.1979).
Congress, in codifying 46 U.S.C.A. § 30508, formerly at 46 U.S.C.A. § 183b, has expressly authorized the parties to a contract of carriage to agree to a shorter time period than provided in 46 U.S.C.A. § 30106. As a practical matter, commercial carriers who transport passengers for a fee, cruise lines, and those engaged in hiring vessels invariably include the one year limitation period in their passenger contracts (tickets) as authorized by the statute. However, many maritime accidents arise in contexts where the tortfeasor, because of the circumstances, is not able to take advantage of the provisions of 46 U.S.C.A. § 30508. This is the case often in recreational boating situations and is particularly apt when a products liability claim is advanced. Thus, the three year period specified in 46 U.S.C.A. § 30106 may be applicable.
State Jurisdiction & Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts
Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) codified at 43 U.S.C.A. § 1333 et seq., the statute of limitations of the adjacent state applies to personal injury actions where the injury occurred on structures like fixed drilling platforms located on outer continental shelf off the coast. Rodrigue v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 395 U.S. 352 (1969). The statutes of limitation for the Gulf Coast states are as follows: Texas, 2 years with Discovery Rule (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.003); Louisiana, 1 year (La. Civil Code § 3492 et seq.); Mississippi, 3 years from date of occurrence with Discovery Rule, 1 year if wrongful death caused by intentional tort (Miss. Code. Ann. § 15-1-1 et seq.); Alabama, 2 years from date of occurrence, punitive damages only if wrongful death (Ala. Code § 6-2-2 et seq.); Florida, 4 years with Discovery Rule but no survival, 2 years for wrongful death (Fla. Stat. Ann. § 95.11 et seq.). Whenever the OCSLA applies, the claim must be thoroughly researched to determine which state’s statute of limitations will apply to the action. The courts in the following cases held that the limitation provisions of the adjacent state as surrogate federal law under OCSLA, rather than the maritime doctrine of laches, would govern the timeliness of the death or personal injury actions arising out of occurrences on offshore stationary drilling platforms: Chevron Oil Co. v. Huson, 404 U.S. 97 (1971); Bible v. Chevron Oil Co., 460 F.2d 1218 (5th Cir. 1972); Bonner v. Chevron U.S.A., 668 F.2d 817 (5th Cir. 1982); Olsen v. Shell Oil Co., 708 F.2d 976 (5th Cir. 1983); Dorety v. Avondale Shipyards of Texas, Inc., 672 F. Supp. 962 (S.D. Tex. 1987), judgment aff’d without published opinion, 832 F.2d 1262 (5th Cir. 1987); Robison v. Exxon Corp., 779 F. Supp. 65, (E.D. Tex. 1991); Grover v. Exxon Corp., 894 F. Supp. 291 (S.D. Tex. 1995). In an action for injuries sustained on a stationary offshore drilling platform, Louviere v. Shell Oil Co., 509 F.2d 278 (5th Cir. 1975) held that the tolling provisions of the law of the adjacent state would be applied as federal surrogate law under OCSLA to determine the timeliness of the action.
The extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act now codified at 46 U.S.C.A. § 30101 et seq., also known as the Admiralty Extension Act (AEA), governs admiralty and maritime lawsuits against the United States government. The AEA provides that, where suit is brought against the United States for damage or injury done or consummated on land by a vessel in navigable waters, the Public Vessels Act or the Suits in Admiralty Act constitute the exclusive remedy for all causes of action against the Government. Furthermore, the AEA also states that no suit may be filed against the United States until after a claim has been presented in writing to the government agency owning or operating the vessel which caused the injury or damage, and after such notice is given, no suit may be commenced against the United States until six months has elapsed. 46 U.S.C.A. § 30101. This gives the Government an opportunity to investigate the incident and for an amicable settlement. In this respect, it is important to note that both the Public Vessels Act and the Suits in Admiralty Act provide for a two year statute of limitations. See 46 U.S.C.A. § 31103 and 46 U.S.C.A. § 30905. In order to comply with the two year statute of limitations and the requirement that a claim be presented to the relevant agency, a claimant must present his claim to the agency within a time frame that allows him sufficient time after six months has elapsed to file suit within the two year limitation period.
Under 33 U.S.C.A. § 910 et seq., the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, the right to compensation for disability is barred unless a claim is filed within one year after the injury, or within one year after the last payment of compensation where payment has been made without an award on account of the injury. 33 U.S.C.A. § 913(a). A one-year statute of limitations, 33 U.S.C.A. § 913(d), is also applicable where a suit for damages has been erroneously brought under another federal statute, as where a suit for damages was brought under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act or under the Jones Act, and then dismissed on the ground that the Longshoremen’s Act was applicable and afforded the exclusive remedy. Ayers v. Parker, 15 F. Supp. 447 (DC Md. 1936). Under this statute, the one-year period begins to run from the date of the termination of the suit. But it is not settled whether a proceeding on a claim erroneously brought under a state workmen’s compensation act can qualify as a suit for damages within the meaning of this statute. Wilson v. Donovan, 218 F. Supp. 944 (DC La. 1963), aff’d 328 F.2d 313 (state proceeding considered a suit for damages); for cases contra, see Dawson v. Jahncke Drydock, Inc., 33 F. Supp. 668 (DC La. 1940); Ayers v. Parker, 15 F. Supp. 447 (DC Md. 1936). It is therefore suggested that in cases where there is doubt as to the proper forum, the risk of being cut off by the limitation provision of the Longshoremen’s Act may be overcome by filing a claim with the deputy commissioner within the one-year period following the date of the injury, while at the same time prosecuting the claim in accordance with state law. Ayers. Failure to file a claim within the time prescribed by statute does not bar the right to file, unless objection to the failure is made at the first hearing of the claim, of which all the parties in interest are given reasonable notice, and where they have an opportunity to be heard. 33 U.S.C.A. § 913(b). Where the employer has failed to comply with his obligation to report an employee’s injury to designated officials within the time prescribed by statute, the limitations period does not begin to run until such time as the report is made. 33 U.S.C.A. § 930(a), (f).
Applicable statutory provisions:
46 U.S.C.A. § 30106. Time limit on bringing maritime action for personal injury or death
Formerly cited as 46 App. USCA § 763a
Except as otherwise provided by law, a civil action for damages for personal injury or death arising out of a maritime tort must be brought within 3 years after the cause of action arose.
46 U.S.C.A. § 30508. Provisions requiring notice of claim or limiting time for bringing action
Formerly cited as 46 App. USCA § 183; 46 App. USCA § 183b
(a) Application.–This section applies only to seagoing vessels, but does not apply to pleasure yachts, tugs, towboats, towing vessels, tank vessels, fishing vessels, fish tender vessels, canal boats, scows, car floats, barges, lighters, or nondescript vessels.
(b) Minimum time limits.–The owner, master, manager, or agent of a vessel transporting passengers or property between ports in the United States, or between a port in the United States and a port in a foreign country, may not limit by regulation, contract, or otherwise the period for-
(1) giving notice of, or filing a claim for, personal injury or death to less than 6 months after the date of the injury or death; or
(2) bringing a civil action for personal injury or death to less than one year after the date of the injury or death.
(c) Effect of failure to give notice.–When notice of a claim for personal injury or death is required by a contract, the failure to give the notice is not a bar to recovery if–
(1) the court finds that the owner, master, or agent of the vessel had knowledge of the injury or death and the owner has not been prejudiced by the failure;
(2) the court finds there was a satisfactory reason why the notice could not have been given; or
(3) the owner of the vessel fails to object to the failure to give the notice.
(d) Tolling of period to give notice.–If a claimant is a minor or mental incompetent, or if a claim is for wrongful death, any period provided by a contract for giving notice of the claim is tolled until the earlier of–
(1) the date a legal representative is appointed for the minor, incompetent, or decedent’s estate; or
(2) 3 years after the injury or death.
43 U.S.C.A. § 1333. Laws and regulations governing lands
(a) Constitution and United States laws; laws of adjacent States; publication of projected State lines; international boundary disputes; restriction on State taxation and jurisdiction
(1) The Constitution and laws and civil and political jurisdiction of the United States are extended to the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf and to all artificial islands, and all installations and other devices permanently or temporarily attached to the seabed, which may be erected thereon for the purpose of exploring for, developing, or producing resources therefrom, or any such installation or other device (other than a ship or vessel) for the purpose of transporting such resources, to the same extent as if the outer Continental Shelf were an area of exclusive Federal jurisdiction located within a State: Provided, however, That mineral leases on the outer Continental Shelf shall be maintained or issued only under the provisions of this subchapter.
(2)(A) To the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent with this subchapter or with other Federal laws and regulations of the Secretary now in effect or hereafter adopted, the civil and criminal laws of each adjacent State, now in effect or hereafter adopted, amended, or repealed are declared to be the law of the United States for that portion of the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf, and artificial islands and fixed structures erected thereon, which would be within the area of the State if its boundaries were extended seaward to the outer margin of the outer Continental Shelf, and the President shall determine and publish in the Federal Register such projected lines extending seaward and defining each such area. All of such applicable laws shall be administered and enforced by the appropriate officers and courts of the United States. State taxation laws shall not apply to the outer Continental Shelf.
(B) Within one year after September 18, 1978, the President shall establish procedures for setting any outstanding international boundary dispute respecting the outer Continental Shelf.
(3) The provisions of this section for adoption of State law as the law of the United States shall never be interpreted as a basis for claiming any interest in or jurisdiction on behalf of any State for any purpose over the seabed and subsoil of the outer Continental Shelf, or the property and natural resources thereof or the revenues therefrom.
(b) Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act applicable; definitions
With respect to disability or death of an employee resulting from any injury occurring as the result of operations conducted on the outer Continental Shelf for the purpose of exploring for, developing, removing, or transporting by pipeline the natural resources, or involving rights to the natural resources, of the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf, compensation shall be payable under the provisions of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act [33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq.]. For the purposes of the extension of the provisions of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act under this section–
(1) the term “employee” does not include a master or member of a crew of any vessel, or an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof or of any State or foreign government, or of any political subdivision thereof;
(2) the term “employer” means an employer any of whose employees are employed in such operations; and
(3) the term “United States” when used in a geographical sense includes the outer Continental Shelf and artificial islands and fixed structures thereon.
(c) National Labor Relations Act applicable
For the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act, as amended [29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.], any unfair labor practice, as defined in such Act, occurring upon any artificial island, installation, or other device referred to in subsection (a) of this section shall be deemed to have occurred within the judicial district of the State, the laws of which apply to such artificial island, installation, or other device pursuant to such subsection, except that until the President determines the areas within which such State laws are applicable, the judicial district shall be that of the State nearest the place of location of such artificial island, installation, or other device.
(d) Coast Guard regulations; marking of artificial islands, installations, and other devices; failure of owner suitably to mark according to regulations
(1) The Secretary of the Department in which the Coast Guard is operating shall have authority to promulgate and enforce such reasonable regulations with respect to lights and other warning devices, safety equipment, and other matters relating to the promotion of safety of life and property on the artificial islands, installations, and other devices referred to in subsection (a) of this section or on the waters adjacent thereto, as he may deem necessary.
(2) The Secretary of the Department in which the Coast Guard is operating may mark for the protection of navigation any artificial island, installation, or other device referred to in subsection (a) of this section whenever the owner has failed suitably to mark such island, installation, or other device in accordance with regulations issued under this subchapter, and the owner shall pay the cost of such marking.
(e) Authority of Secretary of the Army to prevent obstruction to navigation
The authority of the Secretary of the Army to prevent obstruction to navigation in the navigable waters of the United States is extended to the artificial islands, installations, and other devices referred to in subsection (a) of this section.
(f) Provisions as nonexclusive
The specific application by this section of certain provisions of law to the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf and the artificial islands, installations, and other devices referred to in subsection (a) of this section or to acts or offenses occurring or committed thereon shall not give rise to any inference that the application to such islands and structures, acts, or offenses of any other provision of law is not intended.
46 U.S.C.A. § 30101. Extension of jurisdiction to cases of damage or injury on land
Formerly cited as 46 App. USCA § 740
(a) In general.–The admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States extends to and includes cases of injury or damage, to person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable waters, even though the injury or damage is done or consummated on land.
(b) Procedure.–A civil action in a case under subsection (a) may be brought in rem or in personam according to the principles of law and the rules of practice applicable in cases where the injury or damage has been done and consummated on navigable waters.
(c) Actions against United States.—
(1) Exclusive remedy.–In a civil action against the United States for injury or damage done or consummated on land by a vessel on navigable waters, chapter 309 or 311 of this title, as appropriate, provides the exclusive remedy.
(2) Administrative claim.–A civil action described in paragraph (1) may not be brought until the expiration of the 6-month period after the claim has been presented in writing to the agency owning or operating the vessel causing the injury or damage.
46 USCA § 31103. Applicable procedure
A civil action under this chapter is subject to the provisions of chapter 309 of this title except to the extent inconsistent with this chapter.
46 U.S.C.A. § 30905. Period for bringing action
Formerly cited as 46 App. USCA § 745
A civil action under this chapter must be brought within 2 years after the cause of action arose.
33 U.S.C.A. § 913. Filing of claims
(a) Time to file
Except as otherwise provided in this section, the right to compensation for disability or death under this chapter shall be barred unless a claim therefore is filed within one year after the injury or death. If payment of compensation has been made without an award on account of such injury or death, a claim may be filed within one year after the date of the last payment. Such claim shall be filed with the deputy commissioner in the compensation district in which such injury or death occurred. The time for filing a claim shall not begin to run until the employee or beneficiary is aware, or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have been aware, of the relationship between the injury or death and the employment.
(b) Failure to file
(1) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section failure to file a claim within the period prescribed in such subsection shall not be a bar to such right unless objection to such failure is made at the first hearing of such claim in which all parties in interest are given reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard.
(2) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section, a claim for compensation for death or disability due to an occupational disease which does not immediately result in such death or disability shall be timely if filed within two years after the employee or claimant becomes aware, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence or by reason of medical advice should have been aware, of the relationship between the employment, the disease, and the death or disability, or within one year of the date of the last payment of compensation, whichever is later.
(c) Effect on incompetents and minors
If a person who is entitled to compensation under this chapter is mentally incompetent or a minor, the provisions of subsection (a) of this section shall not be applicable so long as such person has no guardian or other authorized representative, but shall be applicable in the case of a person who is mentally incompetent or a minor from the date of appointment of such guardian or other representative, or in the case of a minor, if no guardian is appointed before he becomes of age, from the date he becomes of age.
(d) Tolling provision
Where recovery is denied to any person, in a suit brought at law or in admiralty to recover damages in respect of injury or death, on the ground that such person was an employee and that the defendant was an employer within the meaning of this chapter and that such employer had secured compensation to such employee under this chapter, the limitation of time prescribed in subsection (a) of this section shall begin to run only from the date of termination of such suit.
You should consult a maritime injury attorney at Simmons and Fletcher if you have specific questions about what statutes apply in your case. Failure to comply with the appropriate statute of limitations can result in your claim being barred forever.
Paul Cannon has practiced personal injury trial law since 1995. He is Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law (2005). He has earned recognition as a Super Lawyer by Thompson Reuters in 2017 & 2018, and as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association in 2017. He is a Shareholder, trial lawyer and online marketing manager at Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. His legal writings have been published by the Texas Bar Journal, Business.com, Lawyer.com HG Legal Resources, Lawfirms.com, and others. He has been asked to give education talks and media interviews on dog bite law.