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Jury Finds Ship Owner Employer Negligent in Lia Hawkins' Death - $3.45 Million Award

On October 21, 2010, 33-year-old Lia Hawkins was working as part of a small renovation crew on board M/V SAHARA, which was moored in Ballard, Washington. SAHARA is over 300 feet long and was first commissioned in 1966 as a U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey vessel. After her service there, SAHARA spent time moored as a breakwater in Kirkland. In 2009, Italian racecar driver and hotel owner Emanuele Garosci, through his company G Shipping Ltd., purchased SAHARA, reportedly for over $6.5 million, with the intent to renovate her into a luxury yacht hotel.

But then, with the bad economy, G Shipping kept only the small renovation crew working, leaving the major work for better times. As part of this crew, Lia Hawkins' task was to tear out interior walls and dump the refuse over the side into a waste container located far below. While there were no witnesses, and some time elapsed before she was noticed missing, all indications are that she was carrying heavy scrap metal to the side when she went through a gap in a deck railing, falling four decks into the water. According to the medical report, Ms. Hawkins suffered a skull fracture and drowned. She had no heirs, but left behind her parents and other relatives.

Her parents sued G Shipping for wrongful death, citing the unsafe conditions under which their daughter worked. Not only was the railing unsafe, but another employee stated that how things were laid out on deck could cause a loss of balance while carrying a heavy load. There were little or no safety measures in place on board and there was no one appointed in charge of safety.

A federal court jury has just awarded Ms. Hawkins' family $3.45 million for wrongful death in finding G Shipping negligent in furnishing a safe work environment. This total comprises $450,000 to Ms. Hawkins' estate, $500,000 her pre-death pain and suffering, $2 million for loss of society to her mother, and $500,000 for loss of society to her father. Note that these damages and their awards are assessed as distinct elements without any overlap.

Loss of consortium and loss of society are both considered non-economic losses. That is, they are a loss of a primary relationship as opposed to a loss of earnings or property. You could think of the distinction as qualitative versus quantitative. Loss of society is akin to loss of consortium, except that consortium usually applies to the loss of a spouse. Loss of society can include other family members who would have continued to have benefited from their loved one's ongoing life, love, affection, care, companionship, comfort, guidance, protection, and so on. Thus, there is potential compensation for such loss as when parents lose their child.

The challenge, given that most of us believe that a life is priceless, and knowing we can't bring back or truly compensate for what has been lost, is to set a reasonable yet significant dollar value to the loss of a given relationship due to injury or death. Individuals, as well as courts of law, don't always agree on what the awards should be. It's said that G Shipping plans to appeal the amount of the award. It will be interesting to see how the Court of Appeals rules in this case.

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