Marine & Energy News Alert: Seamen Can Recover Punitive Damages From Non-Employer Tortfeasor Under General Maritime Law

September 11, 2015

On September 9, 2015, Judge Eldon E. Fallon from the U.S.D.C. for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued an opinion refusing to extend the prohibition of a seaman’s recovery under general maritime law for non-pecuniary damages against an employer to a non-employer third-party tortfeasor. The case arose out of a fatal allision with the Florida Avenue lift bridge, which spans the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal in Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Decedent seaman, Michael Collins, was operating the M/V CORY MICHAEL towing a crane barge owned by Boh Bros. when the boom of the crane allided with the lift bridge, which allegedly was not raised sufficiently to allow passage beneath. As a result, the crane boom fell onto the vessel’s pilot house resulting in Collins’s death. Plaintiff, widow of decedent, filed suit against multiple defendants, including decedent’s Jones Act employer/vessel owner ABC Marine, LLC and the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans as owner and operator of the lift bridge. As to the Port of New Orleans, Plaintiff alleged gross negligence and sought punitive damages. The Port brought a motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages arguing that punitive damages are not recoverable as a matter of law under either the Jones Act or general maritime law.

The issue before the court was whether prior case law prohibiting a seaman’s recovery under general maritime law for non-pecuniary damages, including punitive damages, against an employer prohibited plaintiff’s recovery from the Port, a non-employer third-party tortfeasor. A brief history of federal maritime law concerning non-pecuniary and punitive damages is helpful in understanding the court’s reasoning.

Under the Jones Act, seamen and their survivors are permitted to sue for compensation for personal injury or wrongful death based on the negligence of the seaman’s employer. Historically, punitive damages were allowed under general maritime law for willful and wanton misconduct; however, in Miles v. Apex, the U.S Supreme Court declined to allow recovery for loss of society in a general maritime action for the wrongful death of a Jones Act seaman. The Miles Court reasoned that it was not the Court’s role to sanction more expansive remedies in a general maritime law action, which is a judicially created cause of action, than Congress allowed under the Jones Act in cases of death resulting from negligence. The Miles rationale was then extended in subsequent decisions to all but eliminate punitive damages as a maritime remedy in personal injury and wrongful death litigation.

Then, in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the U.S. Supreme Court was faced with the issue of whether a seaman could recover punitive damages for his employer’s willful failure to provide maintenance and cure benefits. In holding that a Jones Act seaman has a general maritime law punitive damage remedy for willful failure to pay maintenance and cure, the Townsend court criticized the expansive interpretation of Miles relied upon by courts to preclude the recovery of punitive damages. Finally, in McBride v. Estis Well Service, the Fifth Circuit sought to determine whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles, holding that the Jones Act limits a seaman’s recovery against his employer for personal injuries or wrongful death resulting from negligence or unseaworthiness under the general maritime law to “pecuniary losses,” was still good law and whether that holding precludes claims for punitive damages for gross unseaworthiness. The McBride court held that there is no right to recover punitive damages from a Jones Act employer under the general maritime law for gross unseaworthiness, and, in doing so, stressed the fact that the Townsend Court distinguished maintenance and cure from seamen’s remedies for compensatory damages based on negligence and unseaworthiness.

With that background, Judge Fallon reasoned that Miles and McBride involved claims for wrongful death of a seaman against a Jones Act employer, not claims against a non-employer third-party tortfeasor, and, thus, Plaintiff’s status as a seaman is irrelevant as to the Port. Judge Fallon also declined to follow Fifth Circuit’s decision in Scarborough v. Clemenco Industries where an opposite result was reached since Scarborough was effectively overruled by Townsend. Judge Fallon commented that the takeaway from Townsend, the governing Supreme Court law on the availability of punitive damages under general maritime law, is that a seaman can recover punitive damages under the general maritime law if the Jones Act is not implicated. Because Plaintiff asserted a non-seaman general maritime law claim for punitive damages against the Board, a non-employer third party, Plaintiff could recover punitive damages under general maritime law.

Given that Judge Fallon's decision is not consistent with prior jurisprudence that seamen cannot recover punitive damages except in cases of maintenance and cure, it is expected that this issue will ultimately be resolved by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals as was the case in McBride. A link to the decision is attached here.