Fifth Circuit Allows for Recovery of Punitive Damages in Unseaworthiness Claim

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s lead in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in McBride v Estis Well Service, LLC, 731 F.3d 505 (5th Cir. 2013), became the first federal appellate court to hold that punitive damages are once again available to a seaman in an unseaworthiness claim.

McBride involved an accident that occurred aboard a derrick barge operating in Bayou Sorrel in Iberville Parish, Louisiana.   One seaman was killed and three were injured when a truck-mounted drilling rig aboard the barge toppled over as the crewmen were attempting to straighten a catwalk.  The plaintiffs sued Estis Well Service for negligence under the Jones Act and for unseaworthiness under the General Maritime Law.  They claimed punitive damages as part of their unseaworthiness claim.

The district court, relying on Miles v Apex Maritime Corp., 498 US 19 (1990), held that because the Jones Act does not allow for punitive damages, such damages were not allowed under a seaman’s General Maritime Law unseaworthiness claim based upon the same facts.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, however, holding that punitive damages were in fact available for a seaman’s unseaworthiness claim.

The Court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in Townsend established a straightforward rule for determining what remedies were available to seamen: if a General Maritime Law cause of action and remedy were established before passage of the Jones Act in 1920, and the Jones Act did not address that cause of action or remedy, then that remedy remains available under that cause action unless and until Congress states otherwise with legislation.  The Fifth Circuit noted that in passing the Jones Act, Congress did not intend to displace preexisting maritime remedies.  Since the unseaworthiness  remedy—like the maintenance and cure remedy—existed prior to passage of the Jones Act, and because punitive damages were available under the General Maritime Law before passage of the Jones Act, they were still available in an unseaworthiness claim notwithstanding their unavailability under the Jones Act.  Significantly, the Fifth Circuit in McBride rejected several arguments typically raised by employers and vessel owners who claim that punitive damages are unavailable to seamen.  The Court heeded the Supreme Court’s admonition that “the laudable quest for uniformity in admiralty does not require the narrowing of available damages to the lowest common denominator approved by Congress for distinct causes of action.”

Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are employed by maritime attorneys during maritime injury cases, and are designed to punish a vessel owner for willful and wanton misconduct, and to deter others from acting similarly in the future.  They play a vital role in ensuring that employers and vessel owners maintain their equipment in safe condition and follow safe policies and procedures.  The Supreme Court reaffirmed the availability of punitive damages for an employer’s willful and callous disregard of the seaman’s entitlement to maintenance and cure in Townsend, and now the Fifth Circuit, in McBride, has reaffirmed their availability for a shipowner’s willful and wanton breach of its obligation to furnish a seaworthy vessel.

The employer interests in McBride have moved for rehearing en banc of the decision, and it remains to be seen whether or not the Fifth Circuit will grant that request.  Because the decision is predicated upon the Supreme Court’s “straightforward” analysis in Townsend, however, it appears unlikely that the full panel would reverse.

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