My December 2013 Legal Talk column (“Expansion of punitive damages?”) addressed the significant ruling of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in McBride v. Estis Well Service.
That case signaled a major expansion in the law regarding seamen’s entitlement to recover punitive damages under the general maritime law. The availability of punitive damages had been extremely limited since the 1990 landmark Supreme Court case Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., which held that non-pecuniary damages, which include punitive damages and similar non-economic type losses, were not recoverable by seamen, whose legal remedies are largely governed by the Jones Act. (The 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.)
Courts have chipped away at the scope of the Miles ruling since then, most notably by the Supreme Court itself in 2009 when the Townsend v. Atlantic Sounding Company case recognized that a seaman could get punitive damages for his or her employer’s willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. The McBride case took that holding a further by allowing seamen to recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims arising under the general maritime law.
The McBride case, however, was recently reconsidered by the entire Fifth Circuit en banc, which reversed the previous ruling by the three-judge panel. Now the rule in the Fifth Circuit is that Jones Act seamen have no cause of action for punitive damages for either negligence or unseaworthiness. The latest McBride ruling is consistent with the general pronouncement of the Supreme Court’s Miles v. Apex case regarding the unavailability of non-pecuniary damages in Jones Act cases.
While this significant ruling reflects a trend in other federal appeals courts, this issue remains unsettled in some jurisdictions. The Supreme Court may again have to take up the punitive damages issue to establish uniformity among all courts on this important aspect of maritime law.