In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a seaman who brings a claim for personal injury against his employer pursuant to the Jones Act for negligence, or under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness of the vessel, is not entitled to recover punitive damages. (Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 489 U.S. 19 (1990)). Employers and insurers embraced the decision, and for close to twenty years the maritime community thought the matter was settled. However, in the last eight to ten years this prohibition has been increasingly challenged by plaintiffs’ attorneys in courts across the country. As a consequence there have been some judges who have held that the injured seaman may, in the appropriate circumstances, recover punitive damages for the employer’s willful, wanton and capricious refusal to pay maintenance and cure, and for gross disregard of its obligation to provide the seaman with a seaworthy vessel. But there has been no consistency between the courts in their rulings, resulting in uncertainty.
On September 25, 2014 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals added its voice to the fray in the matter of McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C. (Case:12-30714). This case’s odyssey to the Court of Appeals began when a truck-mounted drilling rig, part of a barge owned by Estis, toppled over. One crew member was killed, three others injured. Lawsuits were filed on behalf of each. Each prayed for recovery of punitive damages. Estis moved for dismissal of the punitive damage claims as not being recoverable as a matter of law. The federal District Court in Lafayette granted the Motion and held that punitive damages are not available to the injured seaman for unseaworthiness, and that his recovery is limited to pecuniary losses. The decision was based, in part, on the theory that since Congress had included in the Jones Act (the law that provides the seaman with a remedy against his employer) the prohibition of recovery of punitive damages, the principle of uniformity dictated that the courts should not expand the seaman’s rights of recovery. The plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth Circuit.
On October 2, 2013 the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and held that punitive damages may be recovered by the seaman injured due to an unseaworthy condition of the vessel which is the consequence of the employer’s gross breach of its duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. In its lengthy decision, the three-judge panel essentially held that because the seaman’s right to recover punitive damages under the general maritime law was well-established prior to the enactment of the Jones Act, and because the Jones Act does not address unseaworthiness or limit its remedies, the crew of the Estis barge would be entitled to maintain their punitive damage claim.
Estis applied for a re-hearing and on February 24, 2014 the Court of Appeals ordered re-hearing before the entire Court. This time the Court saw matters in a different light and reversed its earlier ruling. Judge Davis, writing for the Court, ruled that the historical judicial and legislative record suggested that when the Jones Act limits the seaman’s recovery to pecuniary damages and prohibits recovery of punitive damages the “seaman may not use a general maritime claim to recover damages that would be unavailable under the Jones Act”. Judge Davis went on to note that “on the subject of recoverable damages in a wrongful death case under the Jones Act and general maritime law, [the Supreme Court] has limited the survivor’s recovery to pecuniary losses” and that these plaintiffs suggested no reason why this analysis would not also apply to their asserting claims for personal injury. Because punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer and not to compensate the victim, by definition are not pecuniary losses.
But, chances are that this is not the end of this debate. The plaintiffs will likely appeal to the higher court. The decision written by Judge Davis was fifteen pages long; the dissent authored by Judge Higginson, and joined by five of his colleagues, measures thirty-seven pages. Expect this issue to be the center of attention of other appellate courts resulting in contradictory decisions which will again draw the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. However, for the time being, at least within the venue of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals the seaman cannot recover punitive damages.