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Marine & Energy Alert: Court Makes Punitive Damages Available to Seaman After Untimely Medical Care

October 12, 2016

On October 5, 2016, Judge Jane Triche Milazzo of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued an opinion recognizing that a seaman may recover punitive damages for his employer’s failure to provide timely medical care after illness or injury. Normally, punitive damages are not available to seamen for unseaworthiness or Jones Act negligence claims. But, in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded a seaman’s potential remedies and made punitive damages available in certain circumstances related to maintenance and cure. 557 U.S. 404 (2009). In Satterfield v. Harvey Gulf International Marine, 2016 WL 5801399 (E.D. La. October 5, 2016) (slip op.), Judge Milazzo potentially expands the availability of punitive damages beyond those for an employer’s failure to provide traditional financial resources for maintenance and cure.

Jon Satterfield was a relief captain who began to experience flu-like symptoms while offshore. Satterfield reported these symptoms, which actually were manifestations of congestive heart failure, to his superior and onshore personnel, but his employer allegedly failed to relieve him of his duties or provide any medical assistance aboard the vessel. Even though his employer promised to have medical personnel available when the vessel arrived in port three days later, none were made available at that time either. Satterfield was then forced to drive himself to the hospital, despite his deteriorating condition. Satterfield brought suit against his employer seeking, in part, damages for failure to timely provide medical care because such delay in treatment allegedly worsened his condition and complicated his recovery.

Pursuant to Atlantic Sounding, Satterfield also sought punitive damages for his employer’s failure to timely provide him cure. His employer filed for summary judgment, arguing that Satterfield’s punitive damages claim was foreclosed because it had timely paid maintenance and cure when it learned of the hospitalization and that such obligation is merely financial. Satterfield responded that failure to timely provide adequate medical care supported a claim for failure to timely supply cure, and not only a negligence or unseaworthiness claim.

In deciding the motion, the court first determined that unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence claims are not the exclusive remedies available to seamen for a failure to provide prompt medical care. Instead, a seaman whose injuries are aggravated by a failure to provide appropriate care on board ship has overlapping causes of action and can recover damages under a count for Jones Act negligence or breach of the duty of maintenance and cure. See Gaspard v. Taylor Diving & Salvage Co., 649 F.2d 372, 375 (5th Cir. 1981).

The court also determined that the duties of maintenance and cure are broader than a mere financial obligation and historically include the duty to provide medical services to seamen while serving the ship. Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U.S. 438, 441 (2001). Thus, a breach of such duty gives rise to an action for breach of the duty to provide maintenance and cure. Because Atlantic Sounding makes punitive damages available for certain breaches of the obligation to provide maintenance and cure, the employer’s summary judgment motion on punitive damages was denied. However, Satterfield must still carry his burden at trial to show the failure was willful and wanton to recover punitive damages.

In light of Satterfield, employers should not only be careful to timely satisfy their financial maintenance and cure obligations, but should also ensure timely and appropriate medical treatment can be provided to any injured or ill seaman, whether on the vessel or once arriving ashore. This not only includes the obligation to timely provide treatment, but may also include the obligation to ensure that vessels are appropriately staffed and/or equipped with medical supplies and personnel. Failure to do so may expose the employer to a potential claim for punitive damages.

Click here to read the full opinion.