For the last two decades, we have seen growing restrictions on the type of monetary damages that can be awarded in maritime cases, particularly those involving accidents and illnesses.
The 1990 landmark Supreme Court case Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. paved the way for a general prohibition against “non-pecuniary” damages in seamen’s claims. That case said that the non-dependent mother of a seaman who was killed on the job had no legal entitlement to compensation for her personal loss. From there, courts relied on the Miles ruling to reduce recoverable damages in a variety of other fact-specific situations. That led to a nearly across-the-board prohibition against punitive damages in seamen’s cases.
That trend changed drastically in 2009 when the Supreme Court found in Townsend v. Atlantic Sounding Company that general maritime law allows for the recovery of punitive damages when a seaman’s employer willfully or arbitrarily fails to meet its maintenance and cure obligations. In October, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals went a step further and ruled that a maritime employer can also be held liable for punitive damages when a seaman is injured or killed as a result of an unseaworthy condition of its vessel. The McBride v. Estis Well Service case noted that punitive damages for unseaworthiness were historically available pre-Miles when the employer’s breach of its duty to provide a seaworthy vessel was “willful and wanton.”
Whatever may constitute a willful and wanton breach of the duty of seaworthiness is, by necessity, determined on a case-by-case basis. There is no standard to assess when that level of breach has been met.
The McBride case is being closely watched due to its marked departure from the previous trend against allowing punitive and other non-pecuniary type damages in maritime cases. Importantly, the McBride case is up for possible reconsideration by the Fifth Circuit en banc, so its holding is not yet set in jurisprudential stone. And regardless of the outcome of the requested rehearing, the case may well be on its way to the Supreme Court for a final ruling.