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Comparative Negligence and Other Defenses

Defenses under the substantive law are available to the defendant in an admiralty action for wrongful death.  Traditionally, state law was applied to actions brought in federal courts for wrongful deaths occurring with in the territory of state waters.  The Supreme Court created a federal maritime remedy for wrongful death in  Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (U.S. 1970) for deaths occurring on the high seas as well as on navigable waters within a state, thereby displacing state law remedies.[i]

Whether the action has been filed within the limitation period is determined equitably by applying the doctrine of laches, considering the analogous federal and state statutes.  Courts have held that when there has been no inexcusable delay in seeking a remedy, and no unusual prejudice to the defendant has ensued from the mere passage of time, relief should not be barred by strict adherence to a particular statute of limitations.[ii]

Ordinarily, the comparative-negligence doctrine is applied in admiralty.  However, courts have differed on the application of this doctrine in wrongful death cases.  One set of cases state that where the law of the state is that contributory negligence absolutely precludes recovery, that rule prevails and no action can be filed in admiralty courts under the general maritime law.[iii]

However, some other courts have held that there is a cause of action for wrongful death in admiralty that is not dependent on adjacent state law and hence it is unnecessary to “borrow” from the substantive law of the state in which the accident occurred.  In such cases, the traditional maritime comparative-negligence rule would apply, and the state contributory negligence rule could not be applied to bar recovery.[iv]  In such cases, the decedent’s own contributory negligence proportionately reduces the claimant’s recovery.[v]

There is no uniform maritime rule governing the effect of a prior settlement on the right to contribution by a joint tortfeasor and state statute may be applied by courts in a federal maritime-law action, notwithstanding the general remedy of contribution in maritime law.  In such a case, there should not be any material prejudice to any characteristic feature of maritime law and the state statute should properly supplement maritime law.[vi]

[i] Sea-Land Servs. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573 (U.S. 1974)

[ii] Meyer v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., 398 F. Supp. 553 (E.D.N.Y. 1975), Construction Aggregates Corp. v. S.S. Azalea City, 399 F. Supp. 662 (D.N.J. 1975)

[iii] Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233 (U.S. 1921)

[iv] Hornsby v. Fishmeal co., 431 F.2d 865, 867 (5th Cir. La. 1970)

[v] Landry v. Two R. Drilling Co., 511 F.2d 138 (5th Cir. La. 1975)

[vi] Wheeler v. Bonnin, 47 Ore. App. 645, 654 (Or. Ct. App. 1980)

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