Several times a year I have the unpleasant task of telling an attorney or potential client that he or she has missed the statute of limitations date in a maritime claim. The most frequent type of case involves either cruise line passengers or workers on fixed oil and gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. However, there are numerous other areas in which the statute of limitations under the general maritime law or United States Code differs significantly from that of the negligence statutes of limitations of the various states.
I can’t do anything about the potential clients until they call, but hopefully I can do something to help other attorneys who may not handle maritime or admiralty cases on a routine basis. I have prepared this article listing the most common limitation periods beginning with the shortest at the top. This article deals solely with the statutes of limitations in various maritime actions. Its purpose is to alert the attorney who may have a potential maritime case to the differences between state law and the general maritime law and the need for consultation with an attorney who handles maritime actions as a part of his or her regular practice.
I would caution the reader that this list is not all-inclusive and that the legal status of the potential claimant must be established in order to determine the appropriate statute of limitations. Further this list should not be used in place of your own research or consultation.
The General Maritime Law Preempts State Law
It is important to recognize that the general maritime law applies to all personal injury and death cases occurring on the navigable waters of the United States, superseding all state laws. The navigable waters of the United States consist of the inland river systems, the intracoastal waterway, navigable lakes, rivers and canals, and the offshore waters of the United States. About the only bodies of water that are not considered navigable waters of the United States are lakes that are totally within the boundaries of one state, such as the system of lakes in Florida created by the builders of Disney World. Accordingly, the reach of federal maritime law is far more pervasive than many attorneys would suspect. Maritime injuries involve a body of law separate and distinct from common law negligence actions. This is because the law governing maritime cases evolved from different sources than land-based law. Therefore, if the injury occurs on, in or near the water, attorneys should be cautioned to look for some maritime cause of action.
Statutes of Limitations
The Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA): When a claimant who is covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA) 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq is injured or killed in the course of his employment, notice must be given to the appropriate District Director, U.S. Department of Labor and the employer within 30 days (one year with regard to occupational diseases that do not immediately result in death or disability) for compensation to become payable. 33 U.S.C. § 912(a).
Failure to give notice is not an absolute bar in certain situations. 33 U.S.C. § 912(d).
Cruise Lines Passengers: Cruise line passenger tickets generally include a six-month notice of claim provision pursuant to 46 U.S.C. app. § 183b. The notice provision has been enforced by United States Courts. See Shankles v. Costa Armatori, S.P.A., 722 F.2d 861 (1st Cir. 1983). The passenger ticket must be carefully examined for any such notice provision.
Cruise Lines Passengers: The applicable law of personal injury lawsuits brought by maritime passengers is the general federal maritime law and the applicable federal statutes that govern accidents occurring on navigable waters. The 1980 Uniform Statute of Limitations for Maritime Torts, 46 U.S.C. app. § 763(a) provides for a three-year statute of limitations.
However, 46 U.S.C. app. § 183b also permits the operators of cruise lines to include in passenger contracts provisions limiting a passenger’s time to bring suit to one year from the date of injury. See Shankles above. Such a one-year limitation has been upheld even where the passenger never had physical possession of the ticket contract!
Although there are certain limitations on the enforceability of contract terms in a passenger contract, in all cases involving claims by passengers, the ticket should be carefully examined to determine whether there are limitations put on the time in which a passenger may bring suit. Nearly all cruise line tickets contain such a limitation.
LHWCA: A claim for compensation benefits must be filed within one year after the injury or death giving rise to the claim, or, if any compensation payment has been made without an award, within one year after the last payment was made. 33 U.S.C. § 913(a).
Fixed Platforms: A fixed platform is a permanent structure built on legs resting on the bottom. Workers on fixed platforms are generally covered by the provisions of LHWCA if their injuries or death were caused by actions of the worker’s employer or co-employees.
In contrast, a jack-up-rig is a vessel even when it is working with its legs on the bottom. Workers aboard a jack-up-rig are generally Jones Act seamen.
If the fixed platform worker is injured or killed as a result of the negligence of third parties, not the worker’s employer or co-employees, the statute of limitations for the third party action is found in the law of the state contiguous to the offshore platform. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 43 U.S.C. § 1331 et seq., requires that fixed platforms on the outer continental shelf be treated as though they were federal enclaves in an upland state. Laredo Offshore Constructors, Inc. v. Hunt Oil Co., 754 F.2d 1223 (5th Cir. 1985).
Most offshore platforms found in the Gulf of Mexico are located off the coast of Louisiana. The statute of limitations for third party claims in Louisiana is one year. If the worker is injured on a fixed platform in waters contiguous to Louisiana, suit must be brought in the third party action within one year or it will be barred.
2 Years Fixed Platforms:
Third party claims occurring on fixed platforms in the waters contiguous to the states of Alabama and Texas, are governed by the Alabama and Texas two-year statute of limitations in negligence actions.
Suits in Admiralty Act: The Suits in Admiralty Act (SAA), 46 U.S.C. app. § 741 et seq., allows lawsuits against the United States in cases in which a private party could be sued in admiralty. An example of such a case is a claim against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for failure to report that it had changed a channel configuration, after which a collision occurred. The SAA includes a two year statute of limitations, 46 U.S.C. app. § 745.
Public Vessels Act: The Public Vessels Act (PVA), 46 U.S.C. app. § 781 et seq., allows an action against the United States for damages caused by a public vessel of the United States. In addition, civilian seaman serving aboard vessels owned by the United States must bring suit against the United States pursuant to this act and not the Jones Act. The practical effect is the shortening of the statute of limitations from 3 years as allowed by the Jones Act to 2 years under the PVA. The provisions of the SAA are incorporated by reference in 46 U.S.C. app. § 782. Therefore, the SAA’s two-year statute of limitations applies to the PVA.
Federal Tort Claims Act: The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq., provides for suits of a non-maritime nature against the Untied States. The FTCA has a two-year statute of limitations; however, if the cause of action is in admiralty and is maritime in nature, such as a suit under the SAA or PVA as set out above, the FTCA does not apply. Incorrectly proceeding under the FTCA does not toll the two-year statute of limitations of the SAA or PVA. Ferreiro v. United States, 934 F.Supp. 1375 (S.D. Fla. 1996).
3 Years Fixed Platforms:
Third party claims occurring on fixed platforms in the waters contiguous to the state of Mississippi are governed by the Mississippi three-year statute of limitations in negligence actions.
Maritime Torts: Injury or death cases occurring in navigable waters of the Untied States, including the territorial waters of the states of Alabama, Louisiana or Texas are governed by the three-year statute of limitations found in the Uniform Statutes of Limitations in Maritime Matters, 46 U.S.C. app. § 763a, as opposed to the Alabama and Texas two-year statute and the Louisiana on-year statute of limitations in negligence actions.
The Jones Act: The Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. app. § 688, covers any seaman who suffers personal injury or dies as the result of injuries sustained in the course of employment. The Jones Act defendant is the seaman’s employer. A Jones Act action must be instituted within the three-year statute of limitations period established in the Federal Employers Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 56, which applies in both injury and death claims.
Unseaworthiness: The doctrine of unseaworthiness is a feature of the general maritime law. The warranty of seaworthiness is imposed by operation of law on a vessel owner or operator and is an absolute and non-delegable duty to seamen to provide a vessel that is reasonably fit for its intended purposes or for the intended voyage. A claim based on unseaworthiness must be brought within three years. 46 U.S.C.A. app. § 763a.
Death On The High Seas Act: The Death On The High Seas Act (DOSHA), 46 U.S.C. §§ 761-768, provides recovery for the death of any person caused by a wrongful act, neglect or default occurring on the high seas more three miles from the shore. The statute of limitations for actions under DOSHA are found in the Uniform Statutes of Limitations in Maritime Matters, 46 U.S.C. app. § 763a.
LHWCA: A longshore worker may bring a cause of action for personal injury or death against a vessel owner or other third party that is not his employer, for the negligence of the vessel owner or third party. 33 U.S.C. § 905(b). There is a three-year statute of limitations for actions under this section. 46 U.S.C. app. § 763a.
Fixed Platforms: Third party claims occurring on fixed platforms in the waters contiguous to the state of Florida are governed by the Florida four-year statute of limitations in negligence actions.
A Warning Concerning Injuries and Deaths Occurring in Florida Waters:
Florida statutes provide for a four-year statute of limitations for torts sounding in negligence. However, under federal law, a lawsuit arising out of a maritime tort must be commenced within 3 years from the date the cause of action accrued. 46 U.S.C. § 763a. The 3-year period of limitation in 46 U.S.C. app. § 763a has been found to be substantive in nature and applicable to all maritime torts, without regard to the forum. See Mink v. Genmar Industries, Inc., 29 F.3d 1543 (11th Cir. 1994).