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Third Circuit Sees Sea Change in Maritime Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

The appeals court judges could see it coming, like a wave building on the horizon.

For decades, other circuit courts had ruled that sailors were bound by collective bargaining agreements over pay rates. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals held to an older view of maritime law.

"Today we stop swimming against the tide," the judges said in Joyce v. Maersk Line, Ltd. It was significant because the court overruled its own precedent, but it also broadsided the plaintiff who had relied on the 27-year-old decision.

"Maintenance and Cure"

In Barnes v. Andover Co. L.P., the Third Circuit said that the specifics of a seafarer's right to maintenance could be modified by a court even if those specifics were set forth in a collective bargaining agreement. That is no longer the law.

"(W)e now hold that a union contract freely entered by a seafarer -- a contract that includes rates of maintenance, cure, and unearned wages -- will not be reviewed piecemeal by courts unless there is evidence of unfairness in the collective bargaining process," the panel said.

Traditionally, the court said, maritime law takes into consideration the "peculiarity" of seafarers' lives. "Maintenance and cure," for example, meant the right to food and lodging while a mariner is ashore recovering from injury or illness.

In analyzing the historic issue, the judges thanked Professor Martin J. Davies of Tulane University Law School for his "insightful amicus brief" regarding precedent and maritime law. It was a remarkable note in a decision that included several concessions.

First, Sixth and Ninth

The Third Circuit acknowledged that its Barnes decision departed from decisions of the First, Sixth and Ninth circuits at the time. Those courts had determined that the "contractual rate should be binding so long as the collective bargaining process had been fair" and subject to real negotiation.

Joyce, who had fallen ill at sea and sued for overtime as part of his maintenance claim, had relied on Barnes. If the judges hadn't overruled it, the appeals court acknowledged, he probably would have won his case.

But the tide had changed, as the Second, Fifth, and Eleventh circuits also weighed in on the issue. Ultimately, the judges said, it will be better for shippers and sailors as unions negotiate more favorable employment agreements.

Of course, the decision left one sailor adrift in maritime law.

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