Justices Won't Review If Punitive Damages Are Available to Seamen for Flawed Vessel

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By Kevin McGowan

May 18 — Denying a petition filed on behalf of deceased and injured seamen, the U.S. Supreme Court May 18 declined to review if a maritime employer can be held liable for punitive damages for not meeting its general legal duty to provide employees with a seaworthy vessel.

The justices denied review of a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decision that the Jones Act limits an injured seaman's recovery to pecuniary damages designed to compensate the injured employee or his survivors and that since punitive damages serve the distinct function of punishing a wrongdoer, they aren't available under the Jones Act or general maritime law (768 F.3d 382, 39 IER Cases 151 (5th Cir. 2014)).

In seeking review, the estate of a deceased seaman plus two injured seamen asked the Supreme Court to resolve a purported federal circuit split on whether punitive damages are available for an employer's “willful and wanton breach” of its general maritime law duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.

Unlike the Fifth Circuit, the Ninth and Eleventh circuits “adhere to the traditional view” that vessel owners can be held liable for such damages under federal common law, regardless of Jones Act restrictions, the petitioners said. Meanwhile, the First and Sixth circuits agree with the Fifth Circuit that under general maritime law, no punitive damages are available against an employer that provides an unseaworthy vessel, the petitioners said.

The Supreme Court should grant review to resolve the split and rule the Fifth Circuit's position is error under both general maritime law and the Jones Act, the petitioners urged.

In its brief opposing review, Estis Well Service LLC said the Fifth Circuit decision is consistent with Supreme Court precedent and doesn't conflict with other circuits' rulings.

Sharply Split Fifth Circuit 

The petitioners formerly were crew members on Estis Rig 23, a barge supporting a truck-mounted offshore drilling rig, according to their Supreme Court filing.

On March 9, 2011, the rig fell over, killing Skye Sonnier and injuring co-workers Brian Suire and Saul Touchet, among others. The administrator of Sonnier's estate and the injured workers sued Estis, alleging gross negligence under the Jones Act and a separate claim for the employer's “wanton” failure to ensure its barge was seaworthy, a violation of general maritime law.

A federal district court in Louisiana dismissed the punitive damages claim under both the Jones Act and general maritime law. On appeal, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed, holding injured seamen may seek punitive damages under general maritime law on a lack of seaworthiness claim even if such damages aren't available under the Jones Act. But in an 8-6 ruling, the full Fifth Circuit vacated the panel decision and affirmed the district court's ruling no punitive damages were available.

The full Fifth Circuit relied on Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990) , in which the Supreme Court held that deceased seamen's survivors couldn't recover damages for loss of society and lost future income under general maritime law because Congress hadn't authorized such damages in analogous federal statutes.

The en banc court reasoned that Miles controlled on the damages issue, also citing the Fifth Circuit's prior decision in Guevara v. Maritime Seas Corp., 59 F.3d 1496 (5th Cir. 1995) , which held an injured seaman couldn't claim punitive damages for his employer's alleged failure to pay maintenance and cure under general maritime law.

The full Fifth Circuit distinguished Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 29 IER Cases 385 (U.S. 2009), in which the Supreme Court had disapproved of Guevara and said punitive damages should remain available for “willful and wanton failure” to pay maintenance and cure under general maritime law. The Fifth Circuit said Townsend didn't control the instant case, which sought punitive damages for the separate claim of failure to provide a seaworthy vessel.

The six Fifth Circuit judges in dissent, however, said Townsend announced a default rule that the traditional availability of punitive damages in common law and in general maritime law governs claims brought by injured seaman unless the defendant employer can rebut the presumption that such damages are available.

As a result, punitive damages are available when deceased or injured seamen claim the vessel owner willfully violated the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel, the dissenters said.

Clear Ruling on Damages Urged 

The Fifth Circuit majority misread Townsend and applied the discredited Guevara analysis in ruling punitive damages categorically aren't available for general maritime law claims alleging failure to provide a seaworthy vessel, the petitioners argued.

The Supreme Court should grant review not only to resolve the circuit split regarding punitive damages for injured seamen, but also to reconfirm Townsend's holding that damages available under traditional maritime law presumptively remain available regardless of whether they can be recovered under the Jones Act, the petitioners said.

The justices could reverse the Fifth Circuit simply by applying Townsend, the petitioners said.

But the court also could provide “essential guidance to the maritime bench and bar nationwide” by ruling punitive damages are available under the Jones Act as well, the petitioners said.

“There is no evidence that Congress decided to exclude punitive damages” when it passed the Jones Act in 1920, when such damages already were “well established” under tort law, the petitioners said.

“It is almost bizarre to think Congress would have excluded such a traditional remedy when it was extending a negligence cause of action—one of the most traditional of tort actions—to seamen,” the petitioners said. “Under the principles announced in Townsend, the burden must be on the defendant to demonstrate that Congress took such a radical step backward without mentioning it.”

The former Estis crew members' case “offers an ideal vehicle” for deciding both whether punitive damages remain available under general maritime law for claims alleging lack of seaworthiness and whether such damages also may be available under the Jones Act, the petitioners said.

Michael F. Sturley in Austin, Tex., was counsel of record for the estate and injured seamen.

Review Unwarranted, Employer Argues 

In opposing review, Estis Well Service said federal appeals courts aren't in conflict after Miles and Townsend on whether punitive damages are available to injured seaman claiming their employer violated a general duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.

Instead, the court in Miles held that the available remedies for a claim alleging lack of seaworthiness can't extend beyond the limits of the Jones Act, Estis said. Since Congress in the Jones Act said only compensatory damages for pecuniary loss are available, no punitive damages are available, even if the injured seaman couches his claims as one of general maritime law, Estis said.

In this case, the Fifth Circuit properly applied Miles to conclude punitive damages aren't within the relief allowable under the Jones Act and therefore also aren't available to an injured seaman pursuing a lack of seaworthiness claim, Estis said.

“The question of whether punitive damages may be awarded for unseaworthiness, when they are not available under the Jones Act, is easy to answer after Miles,” Estis said. “While unseaworthiness [claims have] expanded significantly over the years, courts are not free to expand its damages beyond the parameters set by Congress. Any doubt as to this issue was put to rest by Miles, which answered the question presented in this case.”

Nothing in Townsend varies the result compelled by Miles, Estis said. Rather, the court in Townsend held that the Jones Act placed no limit on remedies for breach of the contractual obligation to pay maintenance and cure to an injured or ill seaman, Estis said. That is a distinct issue that has no bearing on the punitive damages question posed in this case, Estis said.

Alan K. Breaud of Breaud & Meyers in Lafayette, La., was counsel of record for Estis Well Service LLC.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

Summaries of labor and employment law cases denied Supreme Court review appear in Section E.