Can seafarers recover punitive damages from non-employer third parties under the general maritime law? Short answer: it depends on where you are.

Overview

In Wayman v Agribusiness(1) the Circuit Court of the City of Chesapeake, Virginia held that a Jones Act seafarer can recover punitive damages in a general maritime law negligence action against a non-employer third party. In reaching this conclusion, the court recognised that the Eastern District of Louisiana had reached the opposite result in Rockett v Belle Chasse Marine Transp, LLC.(2)

Decision

According to the Wayman court, the Rockett decision was largely driven by Scarborough v Clemco Indus,(3) which held that "a Jones Act seaman or his survivors cannot recover non-pecuniary damages from a non-employer third-party". However, Scarborough was decided before the US Supreme Court's decision in Atlantic Sounding Co v Townsend,(4) in which the court held that punitive damages were available for the wilful and wanton disregard of a vessel owner's obligation to pay maintenance and cure. Nevertheless, the Rockett court recognised that Scarborough was still "good law" in the Fifth Circuit and ruled accordingly.

The Wayman court also observed that McBride v Estis Well Serv, LLC(5) supposedly clarified Scarborough, while holding that a seafarer could not recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness. Conversely, in Batterton v Dutra Grp,(6) the Ninth Circuit declined to follow the Fifth Circuit's decision in McBride, holding that punitive damages are available to a seafarer for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law.

While not discussed in Wayman, it is worth noting that the Eastern District of Louisiana has previously held that McBride's limitation on non-pecuniary damages does not apply to a non-seafarer pursuing a personal injury claim.(7) Thus, in the Eastern District, a non-seafarer was allowed to pursue a claim for punitive damages under the general maritime law, while a seafarer was prevented from pursuing such a claim against a non-employer (which by necessity could not arise under the Jones Act).

Of course, there is nothing wrong with treating seafarers differently from non-seafarers. Dockworkers, passengers and seafarers have different rights and remedies. That said, seafarers are wards of the court, so one would expect them to receive favoured treatment. The Wayman court noted "the axiomatic proposition that seamen occupy a favoured status as the wards of admiralty courts".(8) Since a seafarer is the ward of the court, it makes little sense to allow a non-seafarer to pursue punitive damages under the general maritime law against a non-employer third party, but not allow a similar cause of action for a seafarer. Of course, this contradiction still exists in the context of wrongful death actions.(9)

The Wayman court noted that the Jones Act applies only to actions against a seafarer's employer, and Congress has taken no action to limit such damages to seafarers' actions against third parties. In Scarborough the justification for limiting a seaman's remedies against a non-employer third party was the so-called 'uniformity principal'. Yet, the Wayman court cited Townsend for the proposition that the "laudable quest for uniformity does not require narrowing of damages to the lowest common denominator approved by Congress for distinct causes of action".(10)

Ultimately, despite previous rulings to the contrary in the Eastern District of Louisiana and the Fifth Circuit in Scarborough, the Wayman court held "that the recovery of punitive damages is not prohibited in a general maritime law negligence action by a seaman against a third-party non-employer".

Comment

Wayman is the latest example of inconsistent rulings on the availability of punitive damages under the general maritime law. Arguably, it makes little sense to allow a non-seafarer to recover punitive damages from a non-employer third party but not allow a seafarer – the proverbial ward of the admiralty court – to do the same.

For further information please contact please contact Todd G Crawford at Fowler Rodriguez by telephone (+1 228 822 9340) or email (tcrawford@frfirm.com). The Fowler Rodriguez website can be accessed at www.frfirm.com.

Endnotes

(1) 2018 Va Cir LEXIS 64 (April 27 2018).

(2) 260 F Supp 3d 688 (ED La 2017).

(3) 391 F3d 660, 668 (5th Cir 2004).

(4) 557 US 404 (2009).

(5) 768 F3d 382 (5th Cir 2014).

(6) 880 F3d 1089 (9th Cir 2018).

(7) See, for example, Cook v Kim Susan LLC, 2015 US Dist LEXIS 16806 (ED La February 11 2015).

(8) 2018 Va Cir LEXIS 64, *4, citing Tabingo v American Triumph, LLC, 391 P3d 434, 440 (Wa 2017).

(9) See, for example, Yamaha Motor Corp, USA v Calhoun, 516 US 199 (1996) (allowing non-seafarers to pursue pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages under local wrongful death and survival statutes).

(10) 2018 Va Cir LEXIS 64, *12, citing Townsend, 557 US at 424.

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