Fifth Circuit Addresses What Maritime Law Applies to Indian Seaman’s Claim in U.S. Court

In determining whether maritime claims are governed by the laws of the United States rather than the conflicting law of a foreign nation, courts apply the Lauritzen-Rhoditis factors set forth by the Supreme Court:

(1) the place of the wrongful act; (2) the law of the flag; (3) the allegiance or domicile of the injured worker; (4) the allegiance of the defendant shipowner; (5) the place of the contract; (6) the inaccessibility of the foreign forum; (7) the law of the forum; and (8) the shipowner’s base of operations.[1]

On May 1, 2024, in Ganpat v. E. Pac. Shipping PTE, Ltd., the Fifth Circuit considered the issue of what law applies to an Indian seaman’s maritime claims brought in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.[2] In reaching its conclusion, the Court evaluated the preeminence of the “law of the flag,” which provides that the laws of the country whose flag a ship flies apply to that ship.

Ganpat v. E. Pac. Shipping PTE, Ltd. – Background

In Ganpat, an Indian citizen was working as a crew member aboard a Liberian-flagged ship owned by a Liberian company and managed by the defendant, Eastern Pacific Shipping Pte., Limited (“EPS”). While working aboard the vessel in Africa, the plaintiff-seaman contracted a serious form of malaria, resulting in gangrene, amputation of several toes, and hospitalization for 76 days. The plaintiff filed suit against EPS in federal court in Louisiana under the Jones Act and general maritime law, alleging that EPS is responsible for his ailments by failing to adequately provision the vessel with antimalarial medication at port in the United States for its upcoming voyage to Africa, and failing to dispense antimalarial medication to the crew.

EPS argued that the plaintiff’s invocation of United States law is improper because he is a resident and citizen of India, EPS is incorporated under the laws of Singapore, its principal place of business is in Singapore, and the plaintiff’s claim arises out of his service to a Liberian-flagged vessel owned by a Liberian company. Notably, EPS argued that the plaintiff’s employment contract with the Liberian company was signed in India and contained a provision which provides that the “agreement shall be governed by and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the state of ships flag aboard which the seaman is employed.” As such, EPS argued that the plaintiff’s claims are governed by Liberian law.          

After review of the Lauritzen-Rhoditis factors, the district court concluded that the plaintiff-seaman’s claims are governed by United States law.

Fifth Circuit Ruling          

EPS appealed the district court’s choice-of-law ruling. In evaluating the Lauritzen-Rhoditis factors, the Fifth Circuit noted that the first factor – the place of the wrongful act – is generally of “‘minimal importance’ in cases involving an injured seaman’s claims arising from a shipboard tort.” Conversely, the “law of the flag” factor is generally “of cardinal importance” in the traditional maritime shipping context. The “law of the flag” refers to the law of the nation in which the ship is registered. “The heightened importance generally given to the law of the flag has roots in pragmatism, stability, predictability, and international comity. Thus, ‘the flag that a ship flies may, at times, alone be sufficient’ to determine which nation’s law applies.”[3]

The Fifth Circuit determined that none of the Lauritzen-Rhoditis factors pertinent to this inquiry involve the United States. In fact, the Court found that the only Lauritzen-Rhoditis factor that weighed in favor of application of the law of the United States is the “law of the form” factor, which is generally given “‘little weight’ in the choice-of-law determination.” The Fifth Circuit reiterated that the “law of the flag” factor clearly points to application of Liberia law.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that the district court improperly construed the first factor – the place of the wrongful act – by emphasizing the location of one of the allegedly negligent acts, rather than the place of injury, in EPS’s failure to adequately provision the vessel with antimalarial medication while at port in the United States. The Fifth Circuit further concluded that the district court improperly determined that the “law of the flag” and “base of operations” factors lacked significance in the choice-of-law context where, as here, the shipowner is not a defendant.

In reaching its conclusion, the Fifth Circuit quoted Lauritzen, highlighting that because “the virtue and utility of seaborne commerce lies in its frequent and important contacts with more than one country … frequent and regular . . . commerce and contacts with the ports of the United States” do not justify “applying our statutes to incidents aboard the [defendant’s] ships.”[4] Following Lauritzen, the Court determined that application of United States law cannot be justified in this case simply because “ensuring that ships leaving its ports are properly provisioned is prudent, wise, or in the interest of the greater good.”

The Fifth Circuit emphasized that “the purpose of a conflict-of-laws doctrine is to assure that a case will be treated [i]n the same way under the appropriate law regardless of the fortuitous circumstances which often determine the forum.” The Court concluded that application of United States law in this case would achieve the opposite result, in that the substantive law governing the plaintiff’s claims “would be determined solely by the fortuitous circumstances” of the vessel’s locale at a particular point on its voyage. Accordingly, the Court disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that the United States’s interest in the subject matter “tip the scale” in favor of application of the law of the United States.

So, Whose Law Applies?

Determining that the plaintiff-seaman’s claims are not governed by United States law, the Fifth Circuit then turned to the question of which country’s law does apply.

The Court noted that the plaintiff’s employment contract contains a choice-of-law provision requiring application of the law of Liberia to the plaintiff’s claims. The Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim is also governed by the law of Liberia because the terms of the employment agreement are incorporated into the contract upon which that claim is based.

Regarding the plaintiff’s other claims, the Fifth Circuit again highlighted the importance of the “law of the flag” factor in cases involving traditional maritime shipping activities. The Fifth Circuit pointed out that the plaintiff did not show that the relevant portions of the law of Singapore and/or India conflict with the law of Liberia. Thus, the Fifth Circuit held that the law of the flag prevailed and reversed the district court’s choice-of-law determination. Accordingly, the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s maritime tort and contractual claims were to be adjudicated under the law of Liberia.

Conclusion

Notably, the Fifth Circuit determined that “in traditional maritime shipping cases brought by an injured crew member against a defendant who is alleged to have acted as the owner of the vessel and to have breached duties generally owed by the shipowner, the law of the flag factor maintains at least some significance.” In Ganpat, the Fifth Circuit highlighted the “usual preeminence” afforded to the law of the flag factor in choice-of-law determinations involving cases of traditional maritime shipping activities.

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[1] Lauritzen v. Larsen, 345 U.S. 571, 582, 73 S. Ct. 921, 97 L. Ed. 1254 (1953); Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co. , 358 U.S. 354, 79 S. Ct. 468, 3 L. Ed. 2d 368 (1959); and Hellenic Lines Ltd. v. Rhoditis, 398 U.S. 306, 90 S. Ct. 1731, 26 L. Ed. 2d 252 (1970).

[2] Ganpat v. E. Pac. Shipping PTE, Ltd., 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 10629 *, ___ F.4th ___ (5th Cir. 2024).

[3] Lauritzen v. Larsen, 345 U.S. 571, 582, 73 S. Ct. 921, 97 L. Ed. 1254 (1953); Hellenic Lines Ltd. v. Rhoditis, 398 U.S. 306, 90 S. Ct. 1731, 26 L. Ed. 2d 252 (1970).

[4] Lauritzen v. Larsen, 345 U.S. 571, 582, 73 S. Ct. 921, 97 L. Ed. 1254 (1953).