“McAlpin Tanner Marcotte wins appeal in the Fifth District Court”

We are pleased to inform that team McAlpin Tanner Marcotte has successfully scored another victory for the maritime industry. In Disney Cruise Line v. Ana Maria Reis Martins, the Fifth District Court of Appeal clarified several issues that will impact the maritime industry, especially on the standard of care necessary for the imposition of punitive damages. The court confirmed that a plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages simply because he/she prevails on an underlying maintenance and cure claim at trial. A showing of substantive evidence of willful, callous, or egregious conduct on the part of the shipowner is required to prevail. This burden is higher than mere unreasonable denial of reinstatement of maintenance and cure. A shipowner who is liable for maintenance and cure, but who has been reasonable in denying liability, may be held liable only for the amount of maintenance and cure. Therefore, our vessel’s owner reliance on maximum medical improvement (“MMI”) declarations from a seaman’s treating physician, cannot be viewed, as a matter of law, as the type of wanton, willful, and recalcitrant behavior necessary to support an award of punitive damages.

Next, the court reaffirmed the trial judge’s function as the gatekeeper of expert testimony as required by Daubert. Here, the expert witness (an Economist) utilized unreliable data to form his opinion. By allowing an expert to testify as to future economic damages when his calculations were based on unreliable data, the court concluded that the lower court erred in performing its gatekeeping function. Further, the court reduced the award based on the plaintiff’s comparative fault because she insisted on a verdict form that combined the award of compensatory damages for both Jones Act negligence and failure to provide adequate maintenance and cure into a single question.

Finally, because the plaintiff did not object to the jury instructions or the verdict form related to attorneys’ fees, she waived the issue on appeal. Attorneys’ fees are available for maintenance and cure claims where the defendant is found to have unreasonably withheld maintenance and cure. However, under the Eleventh Circuit’s standard for jury instructions, they are an element of substantive damages that must be proven at trial.