Published: January 4, 2013
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
Jeffrey Polek, a newly-licensed engineer aboard Grand River Navigation Co., Inc.’s M/V MANISTEE, reported to the U.S. Coast Guard a fracture in the vessel’s side shell, after his reports of the fracture to company personnel were shrugged off. A Michigan federal court jury decided Grand River “unlawfully terminated Plaintiff’s employment because of his good faith report of the hull fracture to the Coast Guard, and further found that Defendant’s retaliatory conduct toward Plaintiff merited an award of punitive damages to punish Defendant for its wrongful conduct.” In Polek v. Grand River Navigation, 872 F. Supp. 2d 582 (E.D. Mich. 2012), the jury awarded Polek $1,000 in statutory damages, $33,500 in compensatory damages, and another $100,000 in punitive damages. In awarding punitive damages, the jury found, and the federal district court agreed, the vessel owner’s conduct was unreasonable and reprehensible.
At trial, Grand River downplayed the severity of the hull fracture. The Court found, however:
“…there was evidence that the fracture was below the waterline when the vessel was in a loaded configuration and was the type of damage about which the Coast Guard expected to be notified. Both Captain Brezinski and first mate George Bouhall testified at trial that they were admonished by the Coast Guard for not reporting the hull fracture. While Plaintiff acknowledges that Defendant is correct in observing that it was not ‘cited’ by the Coast Guard, Plaintiff notes that the Coast Guard still issued a Form CG 835 which is a directive to effectuate repairs in a specified period of time—here, immediately upon the vessel’s return to Cleveland.”
The Court also found that Polek repeatedly expressed his “concern not only for his own safety, but the safety of his fellow shipmates,” and that Grand River “disregarded his legitimate concerns.”
Polek presented evidence at trial showing that Grand River’s conduct in concealing facts from the Coast Guard was not an isolated occurrence. In response to Polek’s expression of “legitimate and bonafide safety concerns,” Grand River personnel labeled Polek a “potential liability to the company,” called his concerns the “non-sensical ravings of a junior engineer,” and branded him a “weenie.”
In addition to assessing punitive damages, to emphasize their feelings about Grand River’s conduct, the jury returned a note along with their verdict which stated:
“On [b]ehalf of the jury we wish to extend one additional comment to Grand River Navigation Co., Inc. After extensive discussion regarding the content of the case we collectively recommend that the company invest the resources necessary to improve the management skills of their organization’s structure.”
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The Seaman’s Protection Act, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2010, codified at 46 U.S. Code § 2114, formally entitled, “Protection of seamen against discrimination,” provides as follows:
(1) A person may not discharge or in any manner discriminate against a seaman because—
(A) the seaman in good faith has reported or is about to report to the Coast Guard or other appropriate Federal agency or department that the seaman believes that a violation of a maritime safety law or regulation prescribed under that law or regulation has occurred;
(B) the seaman has refused to perform duties ordered by the seaman’s employer because the seaman has a reasonable apprehension or expectation that performing such duties would result in serious injury to the seaman, other seamen, or the public;
(C) the seaman testified in a proceeding brought to enforce a maritime safety law or regulation prescribed under that law;
(D) the seaman notified, or attempted to notify, the vessel owner or the Secretary of a work-related personal injury or work-related illness of a seaman;
(E) the seaman cooperated with a safety investigation by the Secretary or the National Transportation Safety Board;
(F) the seaman furnished information to the Secretary, the National Transportation Safety Board, or any other public official as to the facts relating to any marine casualty resulting in injury or death to an individual or damage to property occurring in connection with vessel transportation; or
(G) the seaman accurately reported hours of duty under this part.
(2) The circumstances causing a seaman’s apprehension of serious injury under paragraph (1)(B) must be of such a nature that a reasonable person, under similar circumstances, would conclude that there is a real danger of an injury or serious impairment of health resulting from the performance of duties as ordered by the seaman’s employer.
(3) To qualify for protection against the seaman’s employer under paragraph (1)(B), the employee must have sought from the employer, and been unable to obtain, correction of the unsafe condition.
(b) A seaman alleging discharge or discrimination in violation of subsection (a) of this section, or another person at the seaman’s request, may file a complaint with respect to such allegation in the same manner as a complaint may be filed under subsection (b) of section 31105 of title 49. Such complaint shall be subject to the procedures, requirements, and rights described in that section, including with respect to the right to file an objection, the right of a person to file for a petition for review under subsection (c) of that section, and the requirement to bring a civil action under subsection (d) of that section.