The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held crew members may seek punitive damages in personal injury claims if they can prove the ship owner’s misconduct in causing a ship to become unseaworthy was willful, wanton or reckless. This decision is one of an emerging trend to provide injured maritime workers with a wide range of damages as well as to fashion a way to dissuade employers and ship owners from engaging in reckless conduct which is likely to result in injury.
Maritime law historically afforded ill and injured crewmembers only two causes of action against ship owners and employers. If a crewmember became ill or injured while in the service of the ship, the employer and the ship’s owner owed him room and board (“maintenance”) and medical care (“cure”) without regard to fault, and, if not provided, the crewmember had a claim against them for “maintenance and cure.” If a crewmember was injured by a ship’s operational unfitness, the seaman had a cause of action for “unseaworthiness.” Maritime law did not provide crewmembers with a separate cause of action for personal injury resulting from employer negligence, nor did it permit wrongful death or survival claims on behalf of seamen killed during the course of their employment. To remedy those gaps, Congress in 1920 enacted the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act. Congress, however, specifically limited the damages available to those that would compensate the injured seaman for pain and suffering, lost wages and medical expenses. By limiting recovery to “Compensatory” damages, Congress precluded seamen injured by their employers’ negligence or died on the high seas from seeking punitive damages.
Courts interpreting Congress’ intentions in passing the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act for the most part concluded the decision to legislate into the area of maritime personal injury and wrongful death law damages foreclosed any right of a maritime worker to claim punitive damages in every available legal cause of action. This all changed in 2009 when the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision of Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend finding a sick or injured seaman can seek punitive damages for the ship owner or employees willful and wanton failure to provide maintenance and cure. Supreme Court found punitive damages have historically been available in general maritime lawsuits before Congress passed the Jones Act. The Court reasoned Congress knew punitive damages were available in other seamen causes of action at the time of enacting the Jones Act and could have simply wrote into law that such damages are no longer available in any claim brought by a crew member. Since it did not, the Supreme Court found the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act does nothing to seamen’s historical right to seek punitive damages against their employers for the failure to provide maintenance and cure.
Now that the Supreme Court decided punitive damages are available as part of maintenance and cure claims, courts were left to decide whether punitive damages were likewise available in other pre-Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act maritime claims. The Fifth Circuit decided such an issue in McBride v. Estis Well Service. In that case one seaman was killed and three were injured when the derrick aboard the barge they were working aboard toppled over. The deceased seaman’s estate and three surviving seamen sued their employer for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness of the barge under general maritime law. They also sought punitive damages against their employer under general maritime unseaworthiness claims. The employer / ship owner wanted to stipulate to liability and settle the claims, but the punitive damages claims prevented such settlement. The trial court was then asked to decide whether punitive damages were even available to crew members. The trial court decided such damages were not available. This order was appealed. The Fifth Circuit followed Townsend’s reasoning and found like maintenance and cure: 1. unseaworthiness was an established maritime legal claim before Congress enacted the Jones Act; 2. injured crew members historically were able to pursue punitive damages under general maritime law; and, 3. the Jones Act fails to address the claim for unseaworthiness in its text or limit its historical remedies. As such, the Fifth Circuit concluded punitive damages are available to injured seamen post the Jones Act’s enactment.
If you were injured while working aboard a ship and would like to discuss your legal rights, feel free to contract the Florida crew injury maritime lawyers of Brais Brais & Rusak for a free consultation.