September 26, 2014

En banc Fifth Circuit disallows punitive damages in maritime cases involving claims of unseaworthiness (McBride v. Estis Well Service)

The Fifth Circuit issued an en banc opinion yesterday addressing whether punitive damages are available under the Jones Act or general maritime law (a species of federal common law) for a defendant's failure to maintain a seaworthy vessel.  The court answered that question "no."

The plaintiff in this case was the personal representative of a man who "met his death in the service of his ship."  The plaintiff brought a claim for unseaworthiness under general maritime law and a claim for negligence under the Jones Act, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.  The trial court ruled that punitive damages are unavailable for either claim, but a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit reversed.  The panel believed that the Supreme Court's decision in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend permits recovery of punitive damages under maritime law for causes of action, like unseaworthiness, that predate the Jones Act. 

The en banc court disagreed.  It held that the case is controlled not by Townsend but by the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., which held that the Jones Act limits a seaman's recovery for unseaworthiness to "pecuniary losses."  Because punitive damages are non-pecuniary, the court concluded that Miles prohibits punitive damages for claims of unseaworthiness.  The Court distinguished Townsend on the ground that it involved claims for "maintenance and cure," not unseaworthiness.

A dissenting opinion argues that Townsend cannot be so easily distinguished.  According to the dissent, Townsend stands for the broader proposition that punitive damages are available for all maritime claims unless Congress has expressly prohibited them.  Because Congress has not expressly disallowed punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims, the dissent would permit them.

That's a thumbnail sketch of the case.  It's actually a lot more complicated, and consists of five separate opinions spanning 73 pages. 

It won't be surprising if this case ends up in the Supreme Court.

HT: How appealing 

Related posts:

Fifth Circuit grants rehearing to address availability of punitive damages in seaworthiness cases