Ripeness: Why Can Seemingly Good Cases Get Thrown Out?

In a fairly publicized case, three people were killed in 2008 by a diving boat explosion off the coast of Louisiana. This case is still working its way through the courts and got a little further from resolution in Jillian Morrison, LLC v. Sonia because of an obscure legal concept: ripeness.

Lawsuits need several parts to get off the ground. There has to be a plaintiff with claim with a valid legal basis, you need to have defendant that is liable for the claim. There can’t be any successful defenses, there has to be a court with jurisdiction and finally, the claim must be “ripe.”

Ripeness is a technical concept. For a case to be ripe it means that the cause of action being alleged has to have moved beyond the “abstract or hypothetical.” If the only question remaining is whether the law applies, you have a case. If there are still facts that need to develop to decide the case, then it will be determined to lack “ripeness.”

What was left in this case? Three people died, others were injured as a result of abandonment of a nearby pipeline off the coast of Mexico. Naturally, the owners of the boat filed a Limitation Action to try and reduce their legal exposure as a result. The Limitation of Liability Act exists to limit the liability of vessel owners to the value of the vessel and the pending freight. TransCanada USA Services, Inc. went to court to ask a declaration that the insurance companies would protect them from any claims filed.

The problem? No one had yet named TransCanada as a defendant in any lawsuit.

Why do we care about Ripeness? What is the downside of hearing the case when it is brought in front of the court? TransCanada almost certainly would be sued in the near future, so wasn’t it a waste of time to dismiss the suit? This was on appeal even, meaning it had been through multiple courtrooms already.

It seems counterintuitive that courts are required to reject a case even when they know is going to show up again in a few weeks or months. So why is this required? The answer is found in the role of the courts. The Constitution of the United States gives courts jurisdiction over all “cases and controversies” arising under the Constitution. In order for there to be a controversy, the Supreme Court has interpreted, there must be a non-hypothetical claim. The reason for this is we don’t want the Court system giving advice on things that should happen, but rather interpreting actions that already have. If the Courts ruled in favor of TransCanada, they would essentially be determining what the facts could or should be, rather than interpreting them as they are. Until there is an actual case filed, the court simply said no controversy had yet occurred. So to the question earlier, no it isn’t efficient, but it is what is required by the Constitution of the United States.

Like anything in the law, there are always exceptions. If you think you might have a case, contact a lawyer to determine your rights and liabilities.

If you have been injured, please call the Berniard Law Firm is available for a consultation.