Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Martz v. Horazdovsky (9th Cir. - May 10, 2022)

Sometimes law is baffling.

In the abstract, maybe it made sense -- at least historically -- to create an arcane rule in maritime law that the maximum liability of the owner of a ship is the value of the vessel and its cargo. Back in the day, we wanted to compete with Great Britain in shipbuilding, and also wanted to protect the vital industry that shipped export commodities overseas. So even if the ship was boarded, or struck another vessel, or lost its cargo, the owner could be sure that the worst that would happen is that they'd lose the ship and whatever it was carrying. Vital protection (allegedly) for a vital industry.

But, to be clear, by "back in the day" we're talking like "back before the Civil War." That's when Congress enacted the underlying statute.

Is shipping still important? Of course it is. Witness the whole "supply chain" stuff. But economic reality is far more rational these days. There are things like insurance and diversification and risk-sharing. In turn, the law has -- thankfully -- progressed far beyond anything we understood in 1851. We now understand the social utility of negligence rules, efficient cost avoidance, and things like that. The socially deleterious blunderbuss rules of the past have, in most areas, been replaced by legal principles that make more sense. That make the world an unambiguously better place.

Admittedly, if the outdated rules of admiralty law remained in place only to distribute risk between, say, Apple and a ship owner who's toting a boatload of iPhones across the Pacific, I wouldn't especially give the issue much thought. The parties are sophisticated. They can contract around most, if not all, of the rules they don't like. And that market's generally efficient anyway; if the shipper gets a default benefit from some legal rule, then you can be sure that Apple's going to demand reciprocal benefits on its end. The allocation of risk between two sophisticated international shippers isn't something about which I'm profoundly concerned. The market has a way of (generally) working these things out on its own.

But the reach of contemporary admiralty law isn't confined to such areas. Take today's opinion, for example. It's a boating accident. A guy allegedly gets wasted at a party, drives a speedboat, kills a person, flees the scene, and then gets busted. The dead person's estate wants to sue the boat owner. Because, hey, it's your boat, and you shouldn't have let your drunk kid drive it. At which point the boat owner says: "Admiralty law, my man. You can have my crappy little boat and its worn out seat cushions (its "cargo"), but nothing else. That's fair compensation for your dead child."

For even more arcane procedural reasons (a six month "notice of claim" rule unique to this area), the district court disagrees, but the Ninth Circuit reverses.

I can fathom no reason why, in the modern era, we'd possibly want to treat boat owners in this context any differently than, say, car owners. Is shipping important? Sure. But this guy wasn't shipping, he was just jetting around on his speedboat. And even if he was, driving a car -- and/or shipping via truck -- is equally (if not more) important (to most people, anyway) than sending things on a ship. So whatever the rule is for cars should be the same rule, it seems to me, for ships. No silly little holdovers from before the Civil War when, uh, to put it mildly, there were a lot of legal principles that we've thankfully moved far beyond.

Now, if you want to protect innocent owners generally, and want to, for example, say that absent a claim of negligent entrustment, an car or boat or truck owner isn't liable for anything beyond the first $15,000 (or whatever) of injury, okay, we can have that debate. But the rule should likely be the same regardless of the mode of transportation. Without any holdovers from, say, 1851.

It's not like Congress actively thinks about these things. It's not like anyone's getting elected on a campaign motto that says they're going to bring admiralty law into the twenty-first century. No one cares. Unless and until, of course, it's your kid who gets maimed or killed. Instead, a residual holdover from a bygone and inapposite era determines liability.

There are some bad things, to be sure, about the common law. But one of the good things is that you don't typically have unchanging arcane legal rules that make no contemporary sense. Instead, judges are entitled (with appropriate respect for precedent) to change them. Which, overall, is often a good thing. Particularly if there's a statutory backstop where Congress can, if it feels like it, go ahead and change 'em back if the electorate is really of a different view.

But Congress ain't enacting this statute in this context in the modern era. Yet it gets applied in the present cases anyway.

'Cause that's the way the system works.

To the detriment of the dead girl and her family here.