AFO #31 - Class Action Lawsuits 2009.08.08

2009-08-09 16:53  浏览次数 15

Class Action Lawsuits        


Class action lawsuits are regularly brought in the maritime community. These~ lawsuits are usually brought by one or a few named plaintiffs against one or more named defendants. The named plaintiffs typically claim that the conduct of, or product made by, the defendants caused them, and an identifiable group (or class) of people or companies like them, harm.

The plaintiffs will seek, on behalf of themselves, as rep­resentatives of the class, a court order, called an injunc­tion, to make the defendants stop what they're doing. They will also ask the court, following a trial or settle­ment, to award them and the entire class of people and/or companies they represent money damages.

A few recent examples in the maritime community are described below.

On January 20, 2009, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss a lawsuit, seeking class action sta­tus against ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and other oil companies. Erick Kelecseny, John Egizi, and Todd Jessup allege the oil companies negligently failed to warn them and all other Florida boat owners that the gasoline they purchase at the pump is blended with ethanol which, they claim, may destroy fiberglass tanks and damage boats even if they do not have fiberglass tanks. The plaintiffs seek damages for all affected Florida boat owners and to force the oil companies to place a warning label on all pumps at all gas stations in Florida, notifying the boating public that usage of gasoline blend­ed with ethanol may be hazardous to their boats. The case is set to be tried next summer.

On April 12, 2006, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled, in a lawsuit filed by Ingram Barge Company under the Vessel Owners Limitation of Liability Act, after claimants sought to pro­ceed as representatives of a class following Hurricane Katrina-related flooding in New Orleans, that "a class action may not be instituted in a [Vessel Owners Limitation of Liability Act] proceeding." The Court also held that Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs class action lawsuits, and Supplemental Rule F, which governs Limitation of Liability actions, are incompatible in that the entire thrust of Rule F is that each claimant must appear individually.

On October 3, 2005, Sylvester Dziennik, Mieczyslaw Kiersztyn, and Ferdynand Kobierowski, Polish citizens who worked as seafarers aboard U.S. flag vessels, filed a lawsuit in which they sought to proceed as representatives of a class, to recover unpaid wages, overtime wages, and statutory penalties under employment contracts and fed­eral maritime law. They asked a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York to certify a class of 209 sea­faring employees, 113 of whom are Polish citizens and 96 of whom are Filipino citizens, who work (or previously worked) on vessels owned by Sealift, Ine., Fortune Maritime, Inc., Sagamore Shipping, Ine., and Victory Maritime, Inc. On May 29, 2007, the judge allowed the seafarers to proceed with their lawsuit as a class action.

Following the July 23, 2008, Mississippi River oil spill involving the towboat, the M/V Mel Oliver, its tank barge tow, and a ship, a class action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, seek­ing compensation for all personal injury and property damages class members have sustained. Among other claims, the plaintiffs alleged that after the spill, prevailing winds exposed them and others similarly situated to toxic gases that were spread from the colli­sion site to the French Quarter and Uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans, and that heavy oil has caused serious environmental damage to the river and threatened sensitive wet­lands. They sued Laurin Maritime, the Houston firm that operates the Liberian-flagged  tanker  M/Tintomara; the ship's owner, Gibraltar-based Whitefin Shipping Co. Limited; American Commercial Lines Inc., owner of the barge; DRD Towing, the owner of the towboat; and the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, one of whose members was aboard the ship at the time of the collision. Following the lead of the court in the Ingram Barge case, the judge ruled the claimants could not proceed as representatives of a class in a Limitation of Liability Action context.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently held that Animal Feeds International Corp. had to arbitrate Its maritime-related claims, but could do so on behalf of a class of others similarly situated. The company claims that Stolt-Nielsen SA, Stolt-Nielsen Transportation Group Ltd., Odfjell ASA, Odfjell Seachem AS, Odfjell USA, Inc., Jo Tankers BY, Jo Tankers, Inc., and Tokyo Marine Co. Ltd. engaged in a "global conspir­acy to restrain competition in the world market for parcel tanker ship­ping services in· violation of federal antitrust law."

Animal Feeds seeks to represent a class of all "direct purchasers of parcel tanker transportation services globally for bulk liquid chemicals, edible oils, acids, and other specialty liquids from [Stolt-Nielsen] at any time during the period from August 1, 1998 to November 30, 2002."

-What Standards Must a Class Action Lawsuit Meet?

Before allowing a lawsuit to proceed as a class action, the court must first find the following: (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impractical; (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typ­ical of the claims or defenses of the class; and (4) the rep­resentative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. There are other tests courts can apply before allowing a case to proceed as a class action. Most commonly, however, courts will next determine whether the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other avail­able methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

-What is the Purpose of Class Action Lawsuits?

First, if a defendant's conduct has harmed a large group of people or companies, usually at least 40, but each indi­vidual person's or company's damages (or monetary injuries) are small, then there's not much incentive for any one victim and his or her lawyer to absorb the significant time and legal expenses involved in filing a lawsuit and obtaining compensation.

But, if one person or company goes to court, with one or a few lawyers, and is allowed to seek damages for the entire group of persons or companies affected, then a $500 claim may be grouped together and multiplied by the 10,000 or so other persons or companies (for exam­ple). Now, what was a $500 individual case is collectively worth $5 million. That's enough to make it worthwhile for a law firm to take the case on a contingent fee basis, to recover damages for their clients (the class representa­tives), all the members of the class, and for there also to be sufficient damages recovered to pay the substantial out-of ­pocket costs of litigation (such as expert's fees, deposi­tions, travel expenses) and pay the law firm for its time and the risks it took in taking and prosecuting the case.

Second, lawyers who are willing to take the huge risks of a class action lawsuit are sometimes referred to as private attorneys general. This is because the work they are doing often brings justice to victims of large scale corporate mis­conduct. This is the same type of justice that a state or federal government attorney, such as a state attorney geeral's consumer protection division, might otherwise deliver. But, state and federal government agencies simply do not have enough lawyers, time, and money to -pursue all wrongful conduct.

Thus, private class action lawsuits can fill a gap. Without the class action device and the lawyers willing to take these cases on, relatively small monetary injuries caused to hundreds, thousands, or millions of victims would never be redressed and thus a lot of illegal conduct and.resultant injuries would go unchecked.

Third, assume the damages caused to the victims were significant enough to make it cost-effective and worth­while for anyone of, perhaps thousands of victims to bring a lawsuit. In this scenario, the courts would have to contend with thousands of lawsuits simultaneously, some­thing that would risk overtaxing our judicial system. In this way, state and federal judicial systems envisioned the class action as a means to streamline litigation .  


来源 :     Marine Log June 2009

编者 : 此文章供海商法同学们参考.

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