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The Federal Appellate Court for the Fifth Circuit has entered an opinion, McBride et al v. Estis Well Services, approving punitive damages for seaman in cases involving claims of unseaworthiness. The decision is one of the first Circuit Court decisions to address punitive damages availability in a Jones Act or unseaworthiness action since the Supreme Court of the United States’ land mark decision in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend. The Atlantic Soundingsdecision declared punitive damages were available to seamen when their employer willfully and callously withheld maintenance and cure benefits. The McBride decision now confirms that punitive damages are also available under the general maritime law doctrine of seaworthiness.

The McBride case involved a barge with a truck-mounted drilling rig on a Louisiana bayou. As crewmen were attempting to straighten the monkey board – the catwalk that extends from the derrick – which had twisted the previous night, the derrick pipe shifted, causing the rig and truck to topple over. One crewman died in the accident and three others were injured.

Following the Supreme Court of the United States reasoning in Atlantic Soundings, the McBride Court found that the statutory enactment of the Jones Act did not restrict the right to punitive damages under the general maritime law. The Court rejected the vessel owner’s argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex, which limits wrongful death damages under the Jones Act to pecuniary losses, prohibited wrongful death and unseaworthiness punitive damages under the general maritime law. Utilizing the reasoning of Atlantic Soundings, the McBride Court noted that, like the maintenance and cure doctrine, the seaworthiness doctrine existed prior to Congress’s passage of the Jones Act. Therefore, because the Jones Act was silent as to limiting damages for damages for unseaworthiness claims, Congress did not intend to prohibit unseaworthiness punitive damage claims.

Maritime punitive damages are exemplary damages designed to punish a vessel owner for willful and wanton misconduct, and to deter others from acting similarly in the future. Punitive damages play a vital role in ensuring that vessel owners and maritime employers take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the seamen who work aboard their vessels. Following the Atlantic Soundings decision, the Washington State Supreme Court in Clausen v. Icicle Seafoods approved a 1.3 million dollar punitive damage award to a seaman who had been wrongfully denied maintenance and cure benefits. Beard Stacey and Jacobsen, PLLC, represented the injured seaman in Clausen. The Clausen decision resulted in an immediate policy change in the way employers administered maintenance and cure benefits. Employers can no longer utilize callous and unfounded blocking tactics to deny seamen maintenance and cure, or else they will face the prospect of punitive damages. The McBride decision will bring about similar changes, as vessel owners will be forced to be more vigilant in maintaining their vessel in a seaworthy condition. Safe vessel owners will not be impacted by the McBride decision, but those with unsafe boats and below-standard safety practices may face the potential of punitive damage awards.

In McBride, the Fifth Circuit put to rest several arguments typically raised by employers and vessel owners who argue against the seaman’s right to punitive damages. The Court found that “the laudable quest for uniformity in admiralty does not require the narrowing of available damages to the lowest common denominator approved by Congress for distinct causes of action.” McBride also made clear that, although the seaworthiness doctrine is based on strict liability, to be awarded punitive damages, a seaman must present evidence of willful and wanton conduct, a higher standard than is required under the Jones Act.

Relying on the Atlantic Sounding decision, the McBride decision creates a simple rule: If a general maritime law cause of action and remedy were established before the passage of the Jones Act, and the Jones act did not address that cause of action or remedy, then that remedy remains available under that cause of action unless and until Congress intercedes. Given the Atlantic Sounding decision and a thorough discussion and analysis of its impact by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in McBride, it is likely that other Circuit Courts will approve such punitive damages under the seaworthiness doctrine.

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