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Expanding Seamen’s Rights By Pursuing Punitive Damages

A pending case in the Washington State Supreme Court is one of the first in the nation to deal with when and how much in punitive damages can be awarded. Punitive damages are awarded to punish bad behavior. The case deals with one of a seaman’s fundamental rights: the right to maintenance and cure. Maintenance and cure are traditional remedies under maritime law. “Maintenance” is the daily payment to cover certain living expenses expected while on a vessel; “cure” refers to the payment of certain medical bills. They are designed to provide a seaman with food, lodging and medical care when one becomes sick or injured in the vessel’s service. The OSCEOLA, 189 U.S. 158, 175, 23 S. Ct. 483, 47 L. Ed. 760 (1903); Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527, 532, 82 S. Ct. 997, 8 L. Ed. 2d 88 (1962). Maintenance and cure are no-fault obligations employers must fulfill so long as the injury occurred while in the ship’s service and until the seaman reaches maximum cure. West v. Midland Enters., 227 F.3d 613, 616 (6th Cir. 2000), Gardiner v. Sea-Land Serv., Inc., 786 F. 2d 943, 945-46 (9th Cir. 1986).

There are times when employers will deny a seaman’s most basic right. This denial requires legal action, and the courts have answered. While there were existing penalties for denying a seaman’s right to maintenance and cure, the courts have recently increased the potential remedy for failure to fulfill one’s obligation as an employer. Two years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a maritime employer’s “willful and wanton” disregard of its maintenance and cure obligations may also entitle a seaman to punitive damages, along with recovering the properly owned amount. Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, 557 U.S. , 129 Ct. 2561, 174 L. Ed. 2d 382 (2009). Punitive damages have been available in a number of maritime situations, starting as early at a 1818 U.S. Supreme Court case The Amiable Nancy, 16 U.S. 546, 558, 4 L.Ed. 456 (1818) where the court recognized that “exemplary damages” could be given in maritime “wrongdoers.” However it wasn’t until Townsend that the Court decided to award punitive damages to seamen wrongfully denied maintenance and cure. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas considered the fundamental obligation of the employer and concluded that punitive damages are available for tortuous acts of a “particularly egregious nature.” Id. At 2567.

The pending Washington Supreme Court case is the first case in Washington where a seaman, Dana Clausen, recovered punitive damages for an employer’s willful and wanton denial of maintenance and cure. The law offices of Beard Stacey & Jacobsen, LLP represented Clausen against Icicle Seafoods, Inc., which did everything it could to deny his maintenance and cure. The jury determined that Icicle not only unreasonably withheld maintenance and cure from Clausen, it was callous and indifferent or willful and wonton in its withholdings. Because of this, Clausen was awarded $1.3 million in punitive damages. The case has been appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court and has significant potential to dissuade future employers from withholding a seaman’s fundamental right to maintenance and cure. Courts around the country will look to this case to see the state’s implementation of Townsend. Icicle has stipulated that the seaman is entitled to punitive damages; however it is attempting to limit and minimize the amount that can be recovered.

The law offices of Beard Stacey & Jacobsen, LLP are working hard to ensure all seamen will recover the damages to which they are entitled. Although the Clausen case deals with punitive damages for the wrongful denial of maintenance and medical bills, we are pursuing punitive damages in other cases involving wrongful or reckless conduct. The lawyers at Beard Stacey & Jacobsen, LLP, in fact, believe that punitive damages should be available in cases where the employer violates OSHA or Coast Guard regulations. For instance, some employers have not implemented a “lock-out, tag-out” policy when machinery is being repaired. A violation of this OSHA regulation may support a claim for punitive damages. These types of cases are next up in the battle for seamen’s rights.

The law offices of Beard, Stacey & Jacobsen are proud to represent Clausen in such a monumental case and are confident the rights of the seaman will withstand the appeal. If you have been denied your right to maintenance and cure or have been injured while working aboard a vessel, give the lawyers at Beard Stacey & Jacobsen, LLP a call for a free consultation at (206) 282-3100 or visit our website at www.maritimelawyer.us.