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Maritime Update: Punitive Damage Claims Nixed by District Court Judge

On February 1, 2017, the Honorable Eldon Fallon, U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana in the case Wade v. Clemco Industries Corp., et al., dismissed punitive damage claims brought by a seaman's widow under the general maritime law against a non-employer in a silica wrongful death case. This ruling is a blow to a seaman's ability to recover punitive damages in personal injury and wrongful death cases. However, not all judges in the Eastern District of Louisiana have reached the same conclusion.

A. Background

Plaintiff, Rose Wade, was the widow of sandblaster/paint sprayer Garland R. Wade. Rose filed a wrongful death suit under Louisiana and general maritime law against a number of defendants including Clemco Industries Corp. ("Clemco"), Mississippi Valley Silica Company ("MV"), and Chevron USA, Inc. ("Chevron") alleging that they designed, marketed, manufactured, distributed, or sold products exposing Garland to asbestos fibers, which caused his death.

Garland was employed from approximately 1962 to 1972 as a sandblaster and paint sprayer on vessels owned by Coating Specialists, Inc. He also worked on permanent fixed platforms owned and operated by Chevron, both in Louisiana and in federal waters. Plaintiff alleged that the defective design, manufacture, and distribution of the materials used by Garland in his work as a sandblaster exposed him to silica and led to his cancer. Such materials included a hood provided by Clemco and sand provided by MV. Plaintiff also claimed failure to warn and failure to provide adequate equipment and protective devices by Clemco, MV, and Chevron. Plaintiff further alleged that Chevron was negligent in allowing Wade to come onto board and work on its platforms without proper equipment and materials. Finally, Plaintiff sought punitive damages under the general maritime law.

Defendants filed motions for partial summary judgment to have Plaintiff's punitive damages claims dismissed. The court sided with defendants and dismissed Plaintiff's punitive damages claims.

B. Discussion

Defendants argued that under general maritime law, a seaman's widow cannot recover non-pecuniary damages (punitive damages) in a wrongful death claim against any party. Plaintiff maintained that Plaintiff is entitled to recover non-pecuniary damages against a non-employer under the general maritime law. Judge Fallon concluded that, in the Fifth Circuit, neither a seaman nor his survivor can recover punitive damages for personal injury or wrongful death claims based on either the Jones Act or the general maritime law. Judge Fallon held that in light of the Fifth Circuit en banc opinion in the case McBride v. Estes Well Service, LLC, it is clear that under both the Jones Act and the general maritime law, a seaman's damages against both employers and non-employers are limited to pecuniary losses. For these reasons, Judge Fallon dismissed Plaintiff's claim for punitive damages.

C. Why is this important?

  1. This ruling is not consistent with other rulings on the same issue in the Eastern District of Louisiana.

  2. Knowing how the judge assigned to your case has previously ruled on this issue can help you evaluate the likelihood of a similar motion to dismiss punitive damage claims being granted.

  3. In the Fifth Circuit, a compelling argument can be made that as a matter of law a seaman cannot recover punitive damages against a non-employer tortfeasor.

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