Fifth Circuit Allows Seamen to Recover Punitive Damages for Vessel Unseaworthiness

April 23, 2014

The Fifth circuit has ruled that punitive damages are available to a seaman under general maritime law, although such a remedy is not allowed under the Jones Act, which was passed in 1920 to give mariners the special privilege of suing their employers for negligence that causes injury or illness.  The same year, Congress passed the Death on the High Seas act (“DOSHA”), which authorizes survival and wrongful death remedies for seamen, but not punitive damages, although seamen have traditionally been treated as “wards of the Court” under maritime law, similar to widows and orphans.

Actually, “punitive damages” have been awarded in general maritime actions, though not always designated as such. They were awarded, for example, for “willful and wanton misconduct” in maintenance and cure cases. They were intended to deter future violations.

However, in Miles v. Apex Marine, (1990), the Supreme Court said Maritime tort law was now dominated by federal statutes, and the courts should not expand remedies at will, such as damages for loss of society, just because the case involved a seaman.

In 2009, the Supreme Court approved punitive damages in an egregious maintenance and cure case, and said the Jones Act created a special cause of action for “negligence” but it did not eliminate pre-existing remedies under general maritime law.  In fact, the Jones Act preserves a seaman’s right to elect to stay with general maritime law remedies, if he so chooses. Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend, (557 U.S. 404 (2009).

The Jones Act deals only with negligence and does not address seaworthiness or its historical remedies, including punitive damages.  “Like maintenance and cure, unseaworthiness was established as a general maritime claim before the passage of the Jones Act, punitive damages were available under general maritime law, and the Jones Act does not address unseaworthiness or limit its remedies.”  Therefore, the Appeals Court concluded that, “Punitive damages remain available to seamen as a remedy for the general maritime law cause of unseaworthiness.” Raleigh James McBride, et al. v. Estes Well Service, L.L.C. (5th Cir., October 2, 2013).