5th Circuit Limits Recoverability of Punitive Damages by Seamen

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5th Circuit Limits Recoverability of Punitive Damages by Seamen

May 26th, 2014

Recently the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion ruling that punitive damages are not recoverable by seaman plaintiffs, or their representatives, under the Jones Act or the general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness. McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., No. 12-30714 (5th Cir., Sept. 25, 2014). The Fifth Circuit, which encompasses the states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, is considered by many to be the leading maritime law circuit.

The opinion was issued by the Fifth Circuit sitting en banc, meaning that all of the judges in the Circuit participated in the review. On review was the decision of a three-judge Fifth Circuit panel that had been issued in October of 2013, McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 731 F.3d 505 (5th Cir. 2013), which held that punitive damages are available in connection with an unseaworthiness claim.

Since the United States Supreme Court decided Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), there has been a significant increase in the number of published cases in which punitive damages have been sought in connection with seamen’s personal injury claims. In Atlantic Sounding, the Supreme Court ruled that punitive damages are available to punish an employer/vessel owner whose denial of maintenance and cure benefits is found to have been willful and wanton. After the Supreme Court made that ruling, plaintiffs’ personal injury attorneys have argued that Atlantic Sounding also supports allowing injured seaman to claim punitive damages in connection with vessel unseaworthiness claims. Prior to the Atlantic Sounding ruling, in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), the Supreme Court had held that the Jones Act limits a seaman’s recovery to pecuniary damages where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or upon unseaworthiness. Punitive damages are considered to be non-pecuniary damages. Therefore, after the Miles ruling, most maritime attorneys understood that punitive damages were not recoverable in connection with an unseaworthiness claim. The Supreme Court’s Atlantic Sounding decision put that conclusion into question.

Most seamen’s suits include both a claim for negligence under the Jones Act and the separate claim afforded to seaman under the general maritime law of vessel unseaworthiness. If punitive damages are recoverable in connection with an unseaworthiness claim, it is irrelevant whether punitive damages are or are not recoverable in connection with a Jones Act negligence claim.

In the opinion, a majority of the Fifth Circuit judges concluded that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Atlantic Sounding did not overrule Miles, and that Atlantic Sounding is limited to allowing punitive damages only in connection with maintenance and cure claims. However, the decision is only binding upon courts within the Fifth Circuit. There is also a significant chance that the attorneys for the seamen involved in the McBride case will seek review by the United States Supreme Court. We will continue to provide updates on this significant development in maritime personal injury law.

For more information about the contents of this article, please contact Mitch Griffin at mgriffin@cwlfirm.com