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Maritime Update: Fifth Circuit Declares No Punitive Damages for Jones Act Seamen or Their Survivors

On September 25, 2014, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC ("Estis"), issued an en banc opinion which clarifies that, in the Fifth Circuit, punitive damages are not available to Jones Act seamen or their survivors for personal injury or death.  This decision is significant because it brings certainty to vessel owners, employers, seamen, and underwriters.

Background

Estis owned and operated Rig 23, a barge supporting a truck-mounted drilling rig operating in Bayou Sorrell and employed its crew members.  The truck and rig toppled over, and one crew member, Skye Sonnier, was fatally pinned between the derrick and the mud tank.  Three other Estis employees were allegedly injured in the incident. 

Haleigh McBride, individually and on behalf of Mr. Sonnier's minor children, sued Estis in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness under the general maritime law, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.  Estis moved to dismiss plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages, arguing that punitive damages are not an available remedy where liability is based on unseaworthiness or the Jones Act.  The district court agreed and dismissed all claims for punitive damages.  Plaintiffs appealed. 

A panel of the Fifth Circuit unanimously reversed, concluding that unseaworthiness and punitive damages are available to injured Jones Act seamen and their survivors. 

The Fifth Circuit granted rehearing en banc to determine whether the Supreme Court's opinion in Miles v. Apex, holding that the Jones Act limits a seamen's recovery for unseaworthiness to pecuniary (monetary) losses, is still good law and precludes plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages.  The majority of the Fifth Circuit ruled that punitive damages are not available for a Jones Act seaman's unseaworthiness claim and affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' punitive damage claims.

Discussion

Plaintiffs argued that the Supreme Court, in the case Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, overruled or severely undermined Miles v. Apex so that Miles does not control.  In the alternative, plaintiffs maintained that even if their recovery is limited to pecuniary damages, punitive damages should be characterized as pecuniary losses. 

The Fifth Circuit examined the history of the Jones Act, which was enacted in 1920, and the corresponding development of U.S. general maritime law.  The Court further analyzed the Supreme Court opinions Miles v. Apex and Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, and considered whether punitive damages are pecuniary losses.  The majority found that Congress had spoken and in a wrongful death case under the Jones Act and the general maritime law, it has limited recovery to pecuniary losses.  The majority determined that Miles v. Apex presented the same facts as McBride and concluded that Miles is good law and controlled.  The next step may be the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Why is This Important?

  1. Punitive damages are a factor which should be considered when evaluating a case for trial and/or resolution purposes. 
  2.  Pending Jones Act claims which seek punitive damages based on negligence and unseaworthiness should be re-examined in the wake of this opinion. 
  3. This ruling solidifies that in the Fifth Circuit, Jones Act seamen are not entitled to punitive damages for unseaworthiness.
  4. Jones Act seamen claims for punitive damages can be dismissed prior to trial through motion practice if the claims are not voluntarily dismissed.
  5. This ruling establishes a level of certainty regarding punitive damages for seamen, employers, vessel owners/operators, underwriters, and litigants.

Please send me an email at bmason@stonepigman.com if you have any comments or questions.

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