No Proof, No Law, No Punitive Damages

On February 15, 2012, Judge Brown, on the bench for the United States District Court in New Orleans, issued an interesting opinion in the matter of Snyder v. L&M Botruc Rental, Inc.  Snyder, a seaman assigned to a Botruc vessel, had sustained serious injuries to his hand, wrist, knee and other parts of his body.  He filed suit and alleged that in addition to being liable to him for his physical injuries and consequential damages, L&M was liable to him for punitive damages under the “general maritime law, for arbitrary and capricious failure to pay him maintenance and cure and for its gross negligence and unseaworthiness of the vessel.”

L&M filed a Motion for Summary Judgment asking the court to dismiss the claims for punitive damages and attorney’s fees based on failure to pay maintenance and cure and for gross negligence and unseaworthiness of the vessel.  Judge Brown granted L&M’s Motion and dismissed Snyder’s claims.  In doing so, she presented a clear analysis of the facts and well reasoned application of the law.

On the claim for maintenance and cure, the facts showed that L&M had paid the benefits to Snyder, but for several months, despite repeated requests to Snyder and his attorney for medical records to show his status, L&M had stopped paying.  When it would finally receive the information from Snyder’s attorney, L&M would pay the benefits retroactively to cover the period of time it had ceased paying.  L&M argued that it, as the employer, is entitled to investigate the claim for maintenance and cure before making payments, but if thereafter the employer unreasonably refuses to pay maintenance and cure after conducting its investigation or shows callousness, indifference, or willful and wanton disregard for the seaman’s injuries, then the employer may be liable for compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.  L&M argued that there was no evidence to support Snyder’s claim that it failed in its duty to pay him maintenance and cure.

As for the claims for punitive damages for gross negligence and unseaworthiness of the vessel, L&M argued that the maritime law does not allow a seaman to recover anything other than pecuniary damages and that Snyder’s claims for punitive damages fail as a matter of law.

In his opposition, Snyder argued that (1) his claim for maintenance and cure should not be dismissed because he had not yet reached maximum medical improvement and his claim was “still ongoing,” (2) that L&M had paid the maintenance and cure “begrudgingly,” and (3) that if he does not have a claim for punitive damages now, that he should be able to make the claim in this lawsuit, rather than have to file another one later.

As for his claim for punitive damages for gross negligence and unseaworthiness, Snyder argued that since Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, where the court permitted punitive damages for willful failure to pay a seaman maintenance and cure, there has been a movement by the courts to expand this remedy to other causes of action beyond failure to pay maintenance and cure.

Judge Brown soundly rejected all of Snyder’s arguments.  She explained that when there are doubts or ambiguities regarding a seaman’s right to receive maintenance and cure, they are to be resolved in favor of the seaman.  Here, however, Snyder did not bring to court any evidence to support his allegations.  His attorney did not refute L&M’s statement that there were lapses of time where he did not timely provide medical reports and did not point to any evidence that delay in payment was unreasonable.  He merely claimed that L&M made the payments begrudgingly.  The judge found Snyder’s arguments to be conclusory without support.  Snyder did not present any evidence that he had not reached maximum medical improvement, or that L&M had not paid all that it was obligated to pay.  In dismissing the claim for maintenance and cure and the claims for punitive and compensatory damages and attorney’s fees, she held, “It matters not that L&M may have only begrudgingly or reluctantly paid maintenance and cure, as long as it in fact paid.”

Turning to the claim for punitive damages for gross negligence and for the unseaworthiness of the vessel, Judge Brown recognized that since Townsend there have been conflicting opinions as to whether punitive damages may be allowed outside the realm of maintenance and cure disputes.  However, Judge Brown found the Supreme Court in Townsend did not intend to expand the right to recover punitive damages beyond maintenance and cure.  She found that the Jones Act still prohibits recovery of punitive damages against the seaman’s employer, and that there is no basis to conclude that punitive damages should be allowed for claims for gross negligence or unseaworthiness.  Thus, as a matter of law, she found that Snyder’s claim for punitive damages for gross negligence should be dismissed.

This case is important because the Supreme Court in Townsend (in which maintenance and cure was the issue), did not specifically address negligence or unseaworthiness claims.  Judge Brown noted that the Supreme Court emphasized that “remedies for negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure have different origins and may on occasion call for application of slightly different principles and procedures.”  Thus, the question arguably remained unanswered whether punitive damages are also available for the general maritime law claims.”  Since Townsend, attorneys for seaman have consistently attempted to expand the remedy of punitive damages.  Some judges have equivocated on the issue and allowed for the possibility of recovery of punitive damages for negligence and unseaworthiness.  Others have declined to expand the remedy.  To her credit, Judge Brown found that a seaman is statutorily barred under the Jones Act from receiving punitive damages, and cannot recover them “by couching his claim in the judge made law of negligence and unseaworthiness.”