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Punitive Damages Claims Permissible for Unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence in Washington State Superior Court for King County

Superior Court Judge Richard Eddie has held that a seaman’s wrongful death claim involving claims for punitive damages for unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence will proceed to trial on the merits. The vessel owner and employer’s motion to dismiss the seaman’s claim for punitive damages was rejected. Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend, Judge Eddie found as a matter of law that claims for punitive damages are available under both the Jones Act and under the unseaworthiness doctrine.

The case, Nes v. Sea Warrior, King County Cause No. 09-2-05771-1SEA, is thought to be the first in Washington State to reestablish a seaman’s right to punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit had previously recognized punitive damages for seamen in cases such as Evich v. Moriss, but subsequent to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine, most Courts had prohibited punitive damages in seaman injury and wrongful death cases. However, in 2009 the Supreme Court decided Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend allowed punitive damages in maintenance and cure cases. In cases post Atlantic Soundings, punitive damages may not be available in Death On the High Seas Act cases. However, that no longer means that punitive damages will not be granted in appropriate negligence and unseaworthy cases involving willful and wanton conduct.

Late in 2009 a King County jury awarded a seaman 1.3 million dollars in punitive damages for willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. That case, Clausen v. Icicle Seafoods, is now on appeal and will set legal precedent in Washington State about how punitive damages may be calculated and awarded.