The Courts Again Address Punitive Damages

As stated by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1893, punitive damages “are not awarded by way of compensation to the sufferer, but by way of punishment of the offender and as a warning to others” and may be appropriate if the transgressing party is found to have “intentionally acted wantonly or oppressively or with such malice as implies a spirit of mischief or criminal indifference to civic obligations.”  In more modern terms, the courts have stated that as a condition precedent to awarding punitive damages, there must be a showing by the plaintiff that the defendant was guilty of gross negligence or actual malice or criminal indifference which is the equivalent of reckless and wanton misconduct and callous disregard for the rights of others.

Although punitive damages have been recognized as a recoverable in the maritime law in the United States since the early days of the 19th century, the trend exhibited by our courts in the last 15 years has been to limit circumstances in which punitive damages are available.  The courts have either completely prohibited or significantly limited the recovery of punitive damages by maritime workers who have sustained personal injury.  However, when it comes to claims arising under the general maritime law for property damage, the courts have been consistent and permitted recovery of punitive damages.

In 2009 the U. S. Supreme Court in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, 577 U.S. 404 held that punitive damages were available to the injured seaman whose maintenance and cure was wrongfully denied.  In that case the evidence showed that the employer’s refusal to pay maintenance and cure was willful, wanton and callous.

In September of this year the court in Callahan v. Gulf Logistics, LLC, (U.S.D.C. Western District of Louisiana) held that a longshoreman injured due to the gross negligence of a vessel owner may claim punitive damages.  The judge found that the courts have made a distinction between claims under statutory maritime law such as the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act and claims under the general maritime law.

The court concluded that tort claims by a longshoreman for personal injury arose under the general maritime law and that there was no statutory provision in the Longshoreman and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act that limited the availability of punitive damages in a negligence action under the LHWCA.

On October 2, 2013 the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit took up the issue in McBride v. Estes Well Service, LLC.  In that case, three seaman sustained injury (one died) when a truck mounted drilling rig on their barge toppled over.  The claimants brought claims under the Jones Act for negligence and general maritime law for unseaworthiness of the vessel.  They claimed compensatory as well as punitive damages.  Estes moved to dismiss the punitive damage claims arguing that seaman cannot recover punitive damages under the Jones Act or for unseaworthiness of the vessel.

The vessel owner has a legal duty to provide its crew with a seaworthy vessel, i.e., a vessel that is reasonably fit for its intended purpose.  The purpose behind this obligation is to provide the crew with a reasonably safe working environment.  A ship can be seaworthy with respect to its hull, yet be unseaworthy with respect to its appliances, her crew and her living and working conditions.  The Law of Seaman, 5th Ed., Force & Norris.

The vessel owner is not the guarantor of the safety and wellbeing of the seaman, nor is the vessel owner required to provide a vessel that is perfect in every respect.  The owner is obligated simply to furnish a vessel with such gear aboard that is reasonably proper and suitable for its intended use, a crew that is reasonably competent and adequate to property look over the ship.  Bankston v. Odgen Marine, (5th Cir. 1988).

After a thorough review of the availability of punitive damages to maritime workers and seaman in cases over the last one hundred years the court concluded that a seaman injured due to the vessel owner’s willful failure to provide a seaworthy vessel may claim punitive damages.  The court found that because the general maritime law unseaworthiness cause of action and remedy were established before passage of the Jones Act, and because the Jones Act did not address it, the right to claim punitive damages remains available to the seaman.

The problem this creates for the vessel owner is that negligence and unseaworthiness claims overlap.  The courts will now be called upon to make a distinction between a claim based on negligent conduct and a claim based on negligence in failing to provide a seaworthy vessel.  The court recognized this problem but did not give it much weight and state:

“It is true that plaintiffs often bring claims for both causes of action, and that the same act results in liability for one will often result in liability for the other.  But this is a common feature of the law.”

Clearly the courts are expanding the availability of punitive damages to injured maritime workers.