Co-author Shannon Thorne
In McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC, the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that punitive damages are not available to seamen under the Jones Act or under general maritime law. In those cases, recovery is limited to pecuniary losses.
The Drill Barge Accident
Estis Well Service owned and operated Estis Rig 23, a barge that supported a truck-mounted drilling rig operation in Bayou Sorrell, Louisiana. The truck and rig toppled and capsized, killing Estis crew member Skye Sonnier and injuring three others.
Sonnier’s personal representative and the injured crew members sued Estis, alleging negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness under general maritime law. They sought compensatory and punitive damages under both.
Trial and Appeal
The trial court granted Estis’ motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim and certified it for immediate appeal.
A three-member panel of the Fifth Circuit concluded that the Supreme Court’s holding in Atlantic Sounding Co. Inc. v. Townsend should be read broadly, meaning that punitive damages would be available to the injured seamen and their survivors.
The Fifth Circuit granted an en banc (“by the full court”) rehearing, reversed the three-member panel’s decision, and reinstated the district court’s dismissal of the punitive damages claims. Dismissal was not unanimous.
Judge Davis based the majority opinion on the Jones Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990). In Miles, the court denied recovery for damages of loss of society because the Jones Act and the general maritime law of unseaworthiness limited recovery to pecuniary loss.
Judge Davis distinguished Townsend by noting that it involved maintenance and cure, not unseaworthiness. Finally, Justice Davis applied Miles to the personal injury claims of the surviving seamen, rationalizing that “no one has suggested why [Miles] would not apply to an injury case.”
Several judges questioned whether Miles should preclude punitive damages for surviving seamen’s injury claims. In a dissent, Judge Higginson focused on Townsend’s principle that if a maritime cause of action and remedy were established before the Jones Act, and the Jones Act did not specifically address that cause of action or remedy, then that remedy would remain available. Judge Higginson broadly argued that “maintenance and cure” could be replaced with “unseaworthiness,” thus allowing the court to award punitive damages.
This case provides an historical discussion of the availability of punitive damages in Jones Act and unseaworthiness causes of action. Should other circuit courts conclude differently, this issue will need to be clarified by the Supreme Court.