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.