Washington Supreme Court Holds Punitive Damages Available for General Unseaworthiness Claim
On March 9, 2017, The Supreme Court of the State of Washington held that punitive damages are available to plaintiffs under a general maritime unseaworthiness claim. See Tabingo v. Am. Triumph LLC, No. 92913-1, 2017 Wash. Lexis 328 (Mar. 9, 2017). In Tabingo, Plaintiff Allan Tabingo, brought a Jones Act negligence claim and multiple general maritime claims, including one for unseaworthiness, against defendants American Triumph LLC ("American Triumph") and American Seafoods Company LLC ("American Seafoods"). Tabingo was working as a deckhand on a fishing trawler when he had two fingers amputated by a hydraulic hatch due to a broken control handle. Tabingo alleged that American Seafoods knew about the broken control handle for two (2) years prior to the incident, but failed to repair it. Tabingo sought to recover punitive damages under his general maritime claim for unseaworthiness.
Defendants challenged Tabingo's claim for punitive damages. The Superior Court held that based on Washington state and federal law, a seafarer is not entitled to punitive damages under a general maritime claim because the measure of damages available in a Jones Act negligence claim and unseaworthiness claim are identical. Tabingo filed a direct interlocutory petition for review to the Supreme Court of Washington, which was granted. The Supreme Court of Washington reversed the Superior Court, holding that a seafarer may recover punitive damages under a common-law unseaworthiness claim. Defendants argued that Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990) was controlling. In Miles, the family of a dead seaman sought to recover punitive damages for a wrongful death claim, which the U.S. Supreme Court held were not available as Congress had explicitly limited wrongful death claims to pecuniary loss. The Washington State Supreme Court rejected the application of Miles and held that a more recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 129 S. Ct. 2561 (2009), was applicable. The Court was persuaded that Townsend was controlling because in that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a seaman could recover punitive damages from his employer's willful and wanton disregard for its maintenance and cure obligations, i.e. another general maritime claim, whereas Miles was limited to wrongful death claims.
The Court reasoned that a seafarer could bring both a Jones Act negligence claim and a common-law unseaworthiness claim and recover under both theories in the same action. The Court also held that such a result was warranted since the Jones Act was not designed to narrow protection to seafarers but, rather to enlarge it. Since Congress has not directly addressed the damages available for an unseaworthiness claim, punitive damages are not barred from recovery. Finally, the Court concluded with a policy argument that its holding was consistent with the historic charge to Courts to protect seafarers as wards of the admiralty courts.
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