No punitives for unseaworthiness

by Matthew H. Ammerman on March 1st, 2017

This is old news. But it is a follow-up to a previous post reporting on the panel opinion in McBride.

In an opinion issued on September 25, 2014, and penned by Judge W. Eugene Davis, the en banc Fifth Circuit holds that punitive damages are not available in a seaman's claim for unseaworthiness. McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 768 F.3d 381 (5th Cir. 2014)(en banc).

An unseaworthiness claim, which arises under general maritime law, is a claim that the vessel owner failed to furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use.

In McBride, the en banc 5th Circuit reasoned that the U.S. Supreme Court's 1990 holding in Miles -- that a seaman's survivor may not recover non-pecuniary loss-of-society damages -- extended to a claim for punitive damages by both an injured and deceased seaman's survivor. Pecuniary losses in this context are money damages to compensate the plaintiff for "'actual loss" instead of damages fulfilling a punitive purpose.

This issue arises because in 2009 the Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit and held that punitive damages were available for an employer's willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure to a seaman. A maintenance-and-cure claim also arises under general maritime law, and, so the reasoning went, punitive damages should be available for an unseaworthiness claim as well.

The Fifth Circuit says no dice. The Supreme Court, when holding that punitive damages were available for egregious denial of maintenance and cure, clearly states the uniformity principle of Miles is sound. The limitation on non-pecuniary damages derived from FELA and incorporated into the Jones Act precludes punitive damages arising from a general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness.

Posted in Seamen    Tagged with punitive damages, unseaworthiness, mcbride, 5th Circuit



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