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Nichols v. Petroleum Helicopters Inc.

decided: July 14, 1993.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. D.C. DOCKET NUMBER 89-cv-1338 c/w 89-cv-1580. JUDGE Nauman S. Scott

Before Higginbotham, Smith and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.

Author: Demoss

DeMOSS, Circuit Judge:

In this consolidated case arising in admiralty, Miller brought suit against Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. (PHI) for injuries allegedly sustained in a helicopter crash in the Gulf of Mexico on July 14, 1988. Following the defendant's pre-trial stipulation of liability, the only issue at trial was damages. The sole legal question was whether the plaintiff's wife (Jolain Miller) had a claim for loss of consortium under general maritime law. The court held that damages for loss of consortium were not recoverable under general maritime law but awarded Miller $12,000 for general damages and $2,569.13 for economic loss. The Millers appeal the court's awards, the findings of fact upon which they were based, and its holding that loss of consortium was not cognizable under general maritime law. This Court affirms.

I. Background

On June 4, 1988, Jimmie Miller, an employee of Forest Oil Company, was enroute with other crew members to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The PHI helicopter they were travelling upon crashed in Vermilion Block 255B, eighty miles from shore, killing one crew member. Six of the helicopter occupants filed personal injury actions which were consolidated; only the present one was litigated.

Prior to trial, PHI stipulated to liability and Miller waived claims for punitive damages. The issue before the District Court for the Western District of Louisiana was the amount of Miller's damages for physical and emotional suffering, and for economic loss. Miller claimed the accident caused two ruptured discs which led to anterior lumbar fusion surgery and which left him "permanently disabled" from heavy labor.

The court's damage assessment was complicated by two factors. First, Miller had been employed in an extremely heavy manual labor occupation which had caused a history of physical problems and had led to repeated medical treatments. Second, there was evidence to show that, as early as 1983, "hereditary arthritic changes had already begun ... and therefore were not caused by the accident." As a result, the threshold question was whether the helicopter crash was the sole cause of Miller's injuries or whether it merely aggravated pre-existing problems. The same causation analysis was necessary for the emotional suffering claim as Miller had abused both drugs and alcohol in the past.

The court concluded that the preponderance of the evidence did not show the plaintiff had suffered a herniated disc as a result of the accident. At worst, the crash caused merely a back strain and pain due to a pre-existing osteoarthritic condition. The court decided that the pain the plaintiff had suffered would be adequately compensated by $9,000.

The Conclusion that the accident caused a mere back strain was also dispositive of the court's award for economic loss. The court awarded one month's lost wages because it believed Miller's long term physician who seemed to have felt Miller could soon return to work. As the court noted, this evaluation was substantiated by all the orthopedists and neurologists that examined Miller but one. All these findings and awards were greatly influenced by the court's apparent questioning of Miller's credibility as a witness.

As to Miller's claim of psychological damage, the court found that the evidence was again far from clear as to the cause of Miller's problems. The court noted Miller's pre-accident substance abuse, beginning in high school and continuing while he worked for Forest Oil, and his short stay in a detoxification program after the accident. Though causation of all Miller's mental problems was tenuous, the court found that some depression was independently caused by the accident. Accordingly, the court awarded $3,000.

II. Damage Findings

We begin by noting that the clearly erroneous standard of review guides our inquiry into all findings of fact, including damage awards. See, Graham v. Milky Way Barge, Inc., 824 F.2d 376, 389 (5th Cir.1987). Such awards will not be disturbed unless "we are convinced that an error has been committed." Id. at 389-90. See, United States v. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395, 68 S. Ct. 525, 542, 92 L. Ed. 746 (1948), reh'g den'd 333 U.S. 869, 68 S. Ct. 788, 92 L. Ed. 1147 (holding that fact findings are reversed only where "clearly erroneous"). Furthermore, " mere disagreement with the district court's analysis of the record is insufficient, and we will not reverse ... [a finding] "although there is evidence to support it, [unless] the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.' " Milky Way, at 388 (citing Gypsum, 333 U.S. at 395, 68 S. Ct. at 542) (emphasis added).

Miller argues, essentially, that the court twisted Miller's statements to the doctors out of context or deliberately ignored the evidence. This charge is evidenced by Miller's dissection and refutation in his brief of every single finding by the district court. Perhaps, the court may have mislabelled the crash a "forced landing" and misstated the nature of Miller's injuries in a prior car accident. In our view, however, the ...

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