Federal Court of Appeals Allows Crew Members to Pursue Punitive Damages and Hold Employer Accountable for Unseaworthy Vessel

Seamen in Washington and across the United States can feel assured after the recent decision issued by the Federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. In McBride, et al. v. Estis Well Service L.L.C., the Court affirmed the long held principle under general maritime law that punitive damages are an available remedy to seamen injured or killed on an unseaworthy vessel. The original incident that led to this suit began aboard a barge supporting a truck-mounted drilling rig. Crew members were trying to straighten a monkey board that had twisted the night before when the derrick pipe shifted, causing the truck and rig to topple over. A crew member died after he was pinned between the derrick and mud tank, and three other crew members suffered injuries from the same accident.

The injured crew members and the estate of the deceased crew member filed suit in federal court, alleging that the injuries and death were caused by the unseaworthiness of the vessel under general maritime law and negligence under the Jones Act. All crew members and the estate of the deceased crew member asked for compensatory damages and punitive damages. The employer argued that the injured and deceased crew members were not allowed to pursue punitive damages, and the District Court agreed, granting summary judgment to the employer. The crew members appealed, arguing that punitive damages have been an available remedy for several years under general maritime law and have not been limited or removed by the Jones Act.

The Court discussed the history of punitive damages and its purpose of holding the ship owner or employer accountable for willful and wanton misconduct. Cases in the 19th century cited damages awarded for "gross neglect and cruel maltreatment" and "lawless misconduct". The Court stated that the availability of punitive damages went largely unquestioned over the past century and a half, and because of this the Court saw it as a matter of public policy to keep punitive damages available so that willful violators of maritime law are duly punished for their wrongs and deterred from future violations.

The Court then looked at the incorporation of statutory maritime law, which limits the award of punitive damages in certain circumstances. The Court assessed prior decisions which declined to extend remedies precluded by statutes. The Supreme Court held in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 27 (1990) that injured seamen and their loved ones can look toward the legislative enactments for policy guidance, and that the federal court system should keep strictly within the limits imposed by Congress. The Supreme Court considered the statutes enacted by Congress to direct and delimit their actions as a judicial body providing relief to mariners. Ultimately, the Court determined that, while the Jones Act limited some remedies, it did not limit the remedy of punitive damages for the unseaworthiness of a vessel. Because the Jones Act did not specifically address or limit remedies for unseaworthiness, the crew members and their families were allowed to pursue punitive damages.

The Washington maritime and admiralty law attorneys, Gordon Webb and John Merriam, have over 50 years of experience negotiating and litigating Jones Act and general maritime law claims. They are here to work tirelessly for you to maximize the compensation you deserve. If you are a crew member or loved one that has been injured or killed due to the unseaworthiness of a vessel, contact our office for a free, confidential consultation at 877.800.1007.

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