While railroaders and truckers generate the most cases, seamen and merchant mariners also are protected from retaliation when they blow the whistle on safety issues. The Seaman’s Protection Act prohibits retaliation against any seaman who reports a work related injury or who reports to the U.S. Coast Guard or American Bureau of Shipping “that a violation of a maritime safety law or regulation has occurred.” In 2013 Captain John Loftus brought a landmark SPA case against Horizon Lines and Matson Alaska when they fired him after he reported numerous safety violations to the USCG and ABS.
After a three day trial in 2015, Administrative Law Judge Jonathan A. Calianos awarded Loftus nearly one million dollars in damages ($655,000 in back pay, $225,000 in punitive damages, plus emotional distress, attorney fees, and compounding interest). Here is a full analysis of the ALJ’s Decision. Horizon and Matson appealed, and now the Administrative Review Board has soundly rejected all of their arguments.
The ARB’s Decision is notable because it affirms Horizon constructively discharged Loftus when it demoted him from Captain to Chief Mate, forcing him to resign rather than sail as Chief Mate under “intolerable working conditions.” The ARB also affirmed the $225,000 in punitive damages, since “a large punitive damage award was necessary to deter and punish Horizon given its longstanding inaction addressing Loftus’s safety concerns, the chilling effect Horizon’s retaliatory actions likely had on other marine employees, and the harm it visited upon Loftus personally.”
The take away? All seamen and merchant mariners should know there is a federal statute that encourages them to report safety violations to the USCG or ABS, and that protects them from retaliation when they do. For the sake of shipping safety, let us hope this landmark case liberates all seamen to freely exercise their SPA right to report safety hazards, and deters managers from retaliating when they do. Here is the ARB’s full decision in Loftus v. Horizon Lines, Inc. and Matson Alaska Inc. Here is the Connecticut Law Tribune’s article on the Decision. For more on the standards applicable to whistleblower laws such as the SPA, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.