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Punitive Damages Allowed For Unseaworthiness In U.S. District Court For Hawaii

A claim for punitive damages made by a commercial diver based upon the legal theory of unseaworthiness has withstood legal challenge in the United States District Court for Hawaii. The Court found as a matter of law that punitive damages may be sought in cases involving unseaworthiness. The Court based its holding on the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Atlantic Soundings Co. v. Townsend, finding that the Ninth Circuit’s previous holding in Evich v. Morris permitting punitive damages for unseaworthiness remains intact.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend, the majority of the Courts had expanded the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine to prohibit punitive damages in Jones Act and unseaworthiness cases. Based upon the Supreme Court’s rationale and analysis in Atlantic Soundings allowing punitive damages in maintenance and cure cases, the Hawaii District Court rejected the vessel owner’s argument that the Supreme Court’s holding in Miles v. Apex Marine prohibited punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims. In a detailed analysis, the District Court Judge found that there was no statutory preemption of punitive damages in a general maritime law claim for unseaworthiness.

Citing Evich v. Morris with favor, the District Court noted that punitive damages serve the purpose of punishing a defendant, teaching him to not do it again, and deterring others from following his example. To recover punitive damages, a seaman must show that the vessel owner’s conduct is willful and wanton.

The Hawaii District Court’s decision was reached in the case of Wagner v. Knoa Blue Water Farms, Cause No. 09-00600 (9/13/2010). United States District Judge Michael Seabright decided the case. The claims will now proceed ahead on the merits.

A Seattle King County Superior Court Judge reached a similar conclusion recently in Washington State in Nes v. Sea Warrior Inc., King County Cause No. 09-2-05771-1SEA (8/16/2010). In Nes, the Court held that punitive damages were available to a seaman under both the Jones Act and under the general maritime law theory of unseaworthiness. Like the Kona Blue Water case, the Judge in Nes relied upon the Supreme Court’s holding in Atlantic Soundings and rejected arguments that the holding of Miles v. Apex prohibited punitive damages in JonesAct and unseaworhtiness claims. King County Superior Court Judge Richard Eddie made the ruling and noted the humane and liberal character of proceedings in admiralty and the long standing maritime principle that it is better to give than withhold the remedy.