The availability of punitive damages for seamen has historically been a murky issue. District courts are still attempting to decipher U.S. Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit jurisprudence to determine when punitive damages are available under the Jones Act and general maritime law.
Judges and jurists first look to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 489 U.S. 19 (1990). That decision was generally interpreted to mean that Jones Act seamen could not recover non-pecuniary damages, including punitive damages. However, 19 years later in Atl. Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), the Court clarified that the Miles opinion was not a blanket prohibition against the recovery of punitive damages. Rather, seamen could have viable punitive damages claims against their employers for the arbitrary and capricious failure to pay maintenance and cure.
The Townsend decision reopened debate on which claims carry the potential for punitive damages and to whom those damages could be assessed. For example, recently in McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a seaman cannot recover punitive damages from his employer under the general maritime law theory of unseaworthiness .
One lingering issue is whether seamen can recover punitive damages on general maritime law claims against non-employers. The Fifth Circuit ruled in 2004 that Jones Act seamen could not recover punitive damages against non-employer third parties. See Scarborough v. Clemco Indus., 391 F.3d 660 (5th Cir. 2004). That decision was revisited earlier this year by the Eastern District of Louisiana.
In Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing, L.L.C., 2015 WL 5254710 (E.D. La. Sept. 9, 2015), the Eastern District held that Scarborough had been overruled by Townsend. The court ruled that, when the Jones Act is not implicated, there is no prohibition against the recovery of punitive damages. Therefore, a seaman can seek punitive damages from a non-employer third party.
By contrast, in Lee v. Offshore Logistical & Transports, L.L.C., 2015 WL 7459734 (E.D. La. Nov. 24, 2015), another section of the Eastern District held that Scarborough “is binding in this Court and has never been overruled.” According to this decision, Jones Act seamen cannot recover punitive damages for claims of negligence or unseaworthiness, regardless of whether such claims are brought against their employers or against third parties.
This interesting intra-district dispute makes seamen’s recovery of punitive damages a ripe issue for appellate adjudication. Clarification from the Fifth Circuit is necessary to determine whether such damages are available to Jones Act seamen against non-employer third parties.
Allen & Gooch is providing this legal update for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion as to any specific facts or circumstances. You should consult your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have.