Wednesday, November 06, 2013


9th Circuit win may open the door to compensation for Iraq contractor suicide attempts

The [9th Circuit] panel held that a suicide, or injuries from a suicide attempt, are compensable under the Longshore Act when there is a direct and unbroken chain of causation between a compensable work-related injury and the suicide attempt.”—from the court order

by Larry Geller

This is the kind of news that “disappears” because maritime law is a rather esoteric practice that seldom breaks into the mainstream media.

Maritime law in the news

Jay Friedheim practices maritime or Admiralty law, an esoteric legal specialty that seldom breaks into the news. Attorney Friedheim was a key player in front-page stories in 2002 as attorney for a ship’s crew caught up in a murder/mutiny on the high seas.

One thing that Friedheim did was have the ship arrested. That enabled a court in Honolulu to deal with the case. Yes, ships can be arrested. It’s not at all uncommon.

The April, 2002 story was a case in which a ship’s captain was murdered on the high seas aboard a ship loaded with about $500,000 worth of shark fins.

From a story by then AP reporter B.J. Reyes:

A Chinese cook accused of stabbing to death the captain and first mate aboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel is being brought to trial in Honolulu in a rare case in which the United States has asserted jurisdiction over a mutiny on the high seas.

The case could throw a spotlight on the issue of human rights abuses at sea and the clandestine practice of catching sharks and slicing off their fins for use in Asian soups and folk remedies.

Shi Lei, 21, has been in U.S. custody since his arrest March 21 on suspicion of killing the two men during an argument aboard the Full Means 2 while the vessel was in international waters. The first mate's body was found in the ship's freezer: the captain's body had been thrown overboard.

[AP, U.S. to prosecute ship’s cook accused of killing crewmates, 4/11/2002]

Friedheim represented the crew members. As I recall the story unfolding, the crew was about to be stranded here in Hawaii when the owner flew in a substitute crew to take his ship and fins out of Honolulu Harbor.

So the Taiwanese-owned ship was arrested.

"Usually in situations like this, where it involves a crew and back wages, the logical question is: Is there some way that the cargo can be sold so the crew is paid, the owner gets his money and it is all win-win?" [deputy special agent Ray] Sautter said. "But in this case, the answer is no."

Bo Liu, a crew member whose claims were typical, said in papers filed in court yesterday that the company promised him $140 a month for three years, or a total of $5,040, and that he should already have been paid $1,680.

He and the other crew members were hired as seamen and fishermen, but had not been paid or allowed to leave the ship for up to 13 months before the killings occurred, their suit said.

[Honolulu Advertiser, Ruling bars owners from moving ship, 4/9/2002]

There is a lot more about this workers’ comp story that is interesting and timely in terms of the thousands of workers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries and who try to kill themselves, according to attorney Jay Friedheim, who represented a ship worker in this case.

In a nutshell (if you want to study this case, the court order is here),

In 2001, William ‘Willie Boy’ Kealoha, a ship laborer on cleaning detail, fell 25 to 50 feet from the top of a barge to the steel deck of a dry dock. He barely survived the fall and suffered severe trauma to the head, chest, and abdomen. Apparently, not thrilled to be so painfully alive after the horrific fall, two years later, Kealoha shot himself and once again barely survived. He sought benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (33 U.S.C. §§901-950) (LHWCA or Longshore Act).

[New York Law Journal, Vol. 250—No. 86, 10/31/2013, New Test in Longshore Worker’s Attempted Suicide ‘Unchained’]

Kealoha was grievously injured and disfigured. As the law journal also mentions, he was also denied the swift justice that the law, in cases like these, is supposed to provide.

The potential connection to returning Iraq workers that Friedheim raised could be extremely interesting. If you follow Democracy Now or other liberal press outlets, you’ve heard of the high suicide rate among returned soldiers. Apparently, there is also a high rate of self-harm among contracted workers. This case could lead to breakthroughs in compensation for these workers, potentially enabling them to gain access to treatment that could put them on a path to healing.

I know little of the law, but doubt this would apply to soldiers. If it would, I hope someone will correct me.

This win deserves to be covered by the commercial media (hint).


It would not apply to soldiers. The federal government has not waived sovereign immunity for such claims.

Thank you for clarifying. I didn't think it would apply to soldiers, but had no basis for that thought.

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