The Fifth Circuit issued its en banc decision in Estis v. McBride Well Service, LLC, No. 12-30714 (5th Cir. September 25, 2014) and ruled that a Jones Act seaman’s recovery is limited to pecuniary losses where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or unseaworthiness. Because punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses, punitive damages are not recoverable under the Jones Act or for unseaworthiness.
A panel of the Fifth Circuit originally held that punitive damages were available to seamen for unseaworthiness claims upon a showing of willful and wanton misconduct in connection with the unseaworthy condition. 731 F.3d 505, 517-18 (5th Cir. 2013). The Fifth Circuit panel based this holding on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), which the panel interpreted as explicitly abrogating prior prohibitions against punitive damages for maintenance and cure claims under general maritime law. The panel concluded, through reliance on Townsend, that because the unseaworthiness cause of action and the punitive damages remedy pre-existed the Jones Act, then the remedy for punitive damages was available to injured seaman and the survivors of deceased seaman. “[I]f a general maritime law cause of action and remedy were established before the passage of the Jones Act, and the Jones Act did not address that cause of action or remedy, then that remedy remains available under that cause of action unless and until Congress intercedes.” 731 F.3d at 515.
On September 25, 2014, the full Fifth Circuit reversed the panel decision and upheld the district court’s original decision, concluding that the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), preclude seamen or their survivors from recovering non-pecuniary damages, which includes punitive damages, under the Jones Act or the general maritime law for unseaworthiness. Miles provided that a deceased seaman’s survivors under the Jones Act are limited to the recovery of only pecuniary damages, and it established a uniform rule applicable to all actions for the wrongful death of a seaman. The Fifth Circuit explained in McBride that the same rule applies to the claims of an injured seaman, even though Miles involved a wrongful death action. This is an issue that will continue to be monitored as it may be considered by the Supreme Court.
It should be noted that punitive damages can be awarded for the willful failure to pay maintenance and cure to a seaman. It should also be noted that punitive damages are available to non-seaman under the general maritime law.