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Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Affirms District Court Ruling that Punitive Damages are Not Available in Jones Act or Unseaworthiness Actions for Death or Injury to Seamen

In McBride v. Estis Well Service LLC, (Case 12-30714), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, affirmed the decision of the Western District of Louisiana, holding that the Jones Act limits a seaman's recovery to pecuniary losses where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or unseaworthiness, and because punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses, punitive damages may not be recovered.

This action arose out of an accident onboard Estis Rig 23, a barge supporting a truck mounted drilling rig operating in Bayou Sorrell, a navigable waterway in the state of Louisiana. The truck toppled over and one crewmember, Skye Sonnier, was fatally pinned down by the truck, while three (3) other crewmembers, Saul Tochet, Brian Suire and Joshua Bourque (collectively referred to as the "crewmembers"), suffered injuries. Haleigh McBride ("McBride") brought an action on behalf of Sonnier's minor child for unseaworthiness under general maritime law and negligence under the Jones Act, seeking compensatory and punitive damages under both claims from Estis Well Service LLC ("Estis"), the owner and operator of Estis Rig 23 and employer of the crewmembers. Each injured crewmember also filed actions against Estis for the same causes of action and requested compensatory and punitive damages. The actions were consolidated and Estis moved to dismiss the claims for punitive damages, arguing that punitive damages are not an available remedy as a matter of law where liability is based on unseaworthiness or Jones Act negligence. The District Court treated the motion to dismiss as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, granted the motion, and entered judgment dismissing all claims for punitive damages.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was tasked with determining whether the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), was still good law and would preclude the plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages. In Miles, the Supreme Court held that recovery under the Jones Act and general maritime law was limited to pecuniary losses. The Miles court squarely held that the recovery of the deceased seaman's survivors under the Jones Act was limited to pecuniary losses. The Miles court also held that the damages available under the general maritime law cause of action for wrongful death were likewise limited to recovery of pecuniary losses.

The appellants argued that the Supreme Court's decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009) overruled or severely undermined its holding in Miles. In Townsend, the court considered a seaman's claim for punitive damages for the willful failure of an employer to pay maintenance and cure. The Townsend court also recognized that an action for maintenance and cure is independent and cumulative from other claims; therefore, remedies available under the Jones Act and for unseaworthiness would be in addition to claims for maintenance and cure. Furthermore, the Townsend court also stated that in an action for maintenance and cure it is possible to adhere to traditional maritime remedies without abridging or violating the Jones Act. The Townsend court also carefully distinguished its facts from Miles and expressly stated that the Miles reasoning remained sound.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Jones Act and general maritime law in Miles controlled in the instant case, remained good law, and would apply to both the wrongful death and personal injury actions of the crewmembers. The Fifth Circuit also stated that pecuniary loss is designed to compensate the Plaintiff for an actual loss suffered, while punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer for some extraordinary misconduct. Therefore, by definition, punitive damages are not pecuniary losses. Additionally, the Fifth Circuit stated that in interpreting Miles, at least one other Circuit Court has held that punitive damages are barred for an unseaworthiness claim under general maritime law because such damages are non-pecuniary and no Circuit cases have found to the contrary. Therefore, punitive damages were not recoverable in the wrongful death and personal injury actions of the crewmembers brought under the Jones Act and general maritime law because the available damages are limited to pecuniary losses only.

In the dissenting opinion, Circuit Judges Higginson, Stewart, Barksdale, Dennis, Prado and Graves stated that because punitive damages were available under general maritime law before the passage of the Jones Act, and because the Jones Act does not address unseaworthiness or limit its remedies, punitive damages should remain available to seamen as a remedy for the general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness until Congress concludes that punitive damages are no longer an available remedy.

To read a copy of the Fifth Circuit's majority decision as well as the concurring and dissenting opinions [click here]

For more information about the Court's decision and how it may apply to specific facts and circumstances, please do not hesitate to contact us at info@chaloslaw.com.

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