Injured Seamen Cannot Recover Punitive Damages When Injury Is Due to Lack of Seaworthiness

Sep 9, 2016

Maritime workers who are injured or killed in the course of employment because of negligence cannot receive punitive damages. That was the conclusion of an en banc decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C. This came after a brief flirtation by the circuit with a departure from long-held law on the subject.

The appeals court had entertained an appeal from McBride of a ruling by the District Court for the Western District of Louisiana that punitive damages were not available under federal law or general maritime law in negligence cases. In the case, a drilling rig riding on a barge toppled, killing one worker and injuring three others. The injured workers and the representative of the deceased employee were seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the employer.

The district court granted a motion by the company requesting that punitive damages be declared unavailable as a matter of law. The ruling was based on two legal standards: 1) the Jones Act, which grants seamen the right to seek compensation for personal injury due to negligence, and 2) general maritime law which also recognizes recovery for negligence.

After granting the motion, the court granted plaintiff’s motion to certify the judgment for appeal to the Fifth Circuit. A three-judge panel of the court overruled the district, finding that a recent Supreme Court case, Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, had modified the law regarding punitive damages for negligence under the Jones Act and maritime law.

The Fifth Circuit granted a rehearing en banc, and the short-lived ability of seamen to recover punitive damages came to a quick end. The court found that the Supreme Court had not changed the law prohibiting punitive damages, and, in fact, had rather specifically distinguished Townsend from its prior ruling in Miles v. Apex Marine Corporation. In that case, the Court had ruled that punitive damages were not available when a seaman was seeking pecuniary losses pursuant to liability under the Jones Act or general maritime law. The Fifth Circuit went on to point out the facts in Miles were identical to those of the deceased worker in the present case.

If you were injured at sea, you may have a right recover under various laws that apply to seamen. For a free case evaluation, contact Wright Pichon & Gray.

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