Addressing an issue of first impression, a multidistrict litigation (MDL) court in Pennsylvania has held that a number of seamen who brought unseaworthiness claims against ship owners for asbestos exposure may seek punitive damages, but will have to amend their complaints, filed before the U.S. Supreme Court adopted its plausibility pleading standard, to plead their claims with sufficient factual allegations. In re Asbestos Prods. Liab. Litig. (No. VI), Sanchez v. Various Defendants, MDL No. 875 (U.S. Dist. Ct., E.D. Pa., decided July 9, 2014).
The court determined that “punitive damages are available as a matter of law to seamen bringing actions based upon the general maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness,” but are not available in wrongful death and survival actions because, when it enacted the Jones Act to allow such claims, Congress placed limits on recovery, including not allowing punitive damages. The court also disagreed with policy arguments against allowing punitive damages in asbestos cases, finding that any potential excessive awards can be curtailed by the court and that some conduct may be so flagrant and egregious that this remedy could be justified.