Wednesday, April 20, 2016
In the April 2016 issue of WorkBoat magazine, Tim covers
maritime law issues that can arise in a Jones Act case involving
the introduction of punitive damages. Although prior lawsuits that
came under admiralty jurisdiction raised this issue, there were
differences in fact patterns and the nature of damages sought in
these lawsuits that made it difficult to establish a clear and
universal stare decisis standard.
The maritime attorneys representing plaintiffs in the various
earlier cases which came from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals
and the Supreme Court did invoke the element of punitive
damages, but the courts in these cases made certain
distinctions as to the applicability of punitive damages in
maritime law, making the distinction between a setting of
negligence or unseaworthiness or a setting of withholding
maintenance and cure, a Jones Act seaman's remedy for lost
wages and medical expenses (also see Jones Act - What To Do)
Here is the article...
Punitive Damages and the Jones Act
A Jones Act case in Louisiana District Court recently focused
attention on the issue of punitive damages under U.S. maritime
law. In Howard v. Offshore Liftboats, two employees were injured
during a basket transfer from a utility vessel to a liftboat. At the
time, they were working for the company that owned and
operated the liftboat.
As for the utility vessel, it was owned and operated by a different
company. The employees sued the liftboat company for
negligence and punitive damages. They also sued the utility
vessel company for negligence, unseaworthiness, and punitive
The utility vessel company (the non-employer) filed a motion to
dismiss the punitive damages claim. A motion is essentially a
request for a court to do something, such as deciding an issue or
dismissing a claim. In this motion to dismiss, the utility vessel
company relied on the Fifth Circuit decision in McBride v Estis
Well Services, LLC, which denies punitive damages in general
maritime law and Jones Act cases.
In response, the employees relied on the decision in Collins v. A.
B.C. Marine Towing, LLC, a case where punitive damages were
allowed against a non-employer third party. The Collins case
referenced Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, a Supreme Court
decision in which punitive damages were allowed when an
employer arbitrarily withheld maintenance and cure.
However, the Supreme Court in Townsend ruled on punitive
damages only in the context of maintenance and cure. The
Supreme Court did not address punitive damages in the broader
realm of unseaworthiness. Therefore, the Louisiana District
Court in the case at hand sided with the utility vessel company
and dismissed the punitive damages claims of the two
Punitive damages, in general, can be a contentious subject.
Depending on the nature of a case, courts could uphold punitive
damages if they found the conduct of a wrongdoer to be
egregious. Some legal commentators dislike the concept
because it can open the door to injustice, where a defendant is
thrown under the bus, so to speak, for the sake of “sending a
strong message” through heavy-handed punitive damages.
Again in a general sense, some feel punitive damages can be
useful if a party acts maliciously, deceitfully, or unconscionably.
In such instances, a court might see ordinary money damages as
inadequate in compensating a party for losses it suffered as a
result of another’s unscrupulous conduct.
Reference: Howard, et al. v. Offshore Liftboats, LLC, et al., Civil
Action No. 13-4811, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of
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