We previously reported on the dispute whether Jones Act seamen can recover punitive damages under general maritime law against non-employer third parties. District court opinions on this issue have differed, mostly due to conflicting interpretations of prior U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions.
Hume v. Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc.
The dispute continues with a recent decision from the Eastern District of Louisiana. In Hume v. Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc., 2016 WL 1089349 (E.D. La. March 21, 2016), two Jones Act seamen were working aboard a vessel when a “breast wire/running wire” from the vessel “rose up and struck” them. They sued the owner of the vessel, who was not their employer.
The vessel owner moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ punitive damages claims, arguing that punitive damages are not available under general maritime law against non-employers. The vessel owner cited prior Fifth Circuit decisions, which held that seamen cannot recover nonpecuniary damages that would otherwise not be recoverable under the Jones Act.
The plaintiffs cited to recent Eastern District of Louisiana decisions, which held that punitive damages can be awarded against a non-employer under general maritime law so long as the Jones Act is not implicated.
The Hume court agreed with the plaintiffs, and the punitive damages claims were not dismissed. Although courts generally strive for uniformity in application of general maritime law, the Hume court held that “there is no need for uniform treatment of an employer and a third party tortfeasor where there is no statutory remedy that is different than the general maritime law remedy.” The court added, “It should make no difference whether the Plaintiff was a seaman, longshoreman, or a passenger.”
The Hume decision does not settle the debate. Even sections of the Eastern District of Louisiana are split on whether punitive damages are recoverable in this scenario. This issue will likely require a resolution from the Fifth Circuit.
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.