By Tim Akpinar
A recent Jones Act case in Louisiana District Court focused attention on the issue of punitive damages under U.S. maritime law. In Howard v. Offshore Liftboats LLC, 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 damages.
The utility vessel operator (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 ad-dress 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 employees.
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 experts 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.
Tim Akpinar is a Little Neck, N.Y.-based maritime attorney and former marine engineer. He can be reached via email.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of WorkBoat.