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25 April 2012
The US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri recently held that punitive damages are available under general maritime law in unseaworthiness actions.(1) The court followed the recent ruling in Atlantic Sounding Co Inc v Townsend,(2) where the US Supreme Court held that the common law tradition of punitive damages extends to maritime claims unless Congress has enacted a federal statute restricting its application. Since Congress has not limited the remedies available in unseaworthiness actions, the court concluded that punitive damages are available under general maritime law for unseaworthiness claims.
While working as a mate on board a towboat, a seaman injured his foot when rendering barge-switching services in the Mississippi River. The owner of the towboat filed a petition for limitation of liability to protect its interest in case of any loss or damage incurred by the claimant.(5) In response, the claimant filed an answer and claim asserting that the owner had operated the towboat in an unseaworthy condition,(6) seeking punitive damages as a remedy.(7) The owner moved for judgment on the pleadings(8) in order to dismiss the punitive damages demand, but the district court denied the motion.
The district court denied the owner's motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding that punitive damages are available under general maritime law in unseaworthiness actions as there is no federal statute restricting its application. The court based its ruling on the recent Supreme Court decision in Townsend. In that case, the court held that a seaman could recover punitive damages under general maritime law in a maintenance and cure claim. The court reasoned that punitive damages have long been available at common law, and such tradition extends to maritime claims unless "Congress has enacted a legislation departing from this common-law undertaking". As Congress has not limited the remedies available in unseaworthiness claims by any federal statute, the district court concluded that punitive damages were available under general maritime law for unseaworthiness actions.
The district court rejected the owner's argument that general maritime law does not permit the recovery of punitive damages for claims based on the doctrine of unseaworthiness. The owner supported its argument by citing the Supreme Court's decision in Miles v Apex Marine Corp,(9) where the court denied the availability of non-pecuniary damages – loss of society and lost of future earnings – for wrongful death actions brought under the doctrine of unseaworthiness. The court reasoned that because the only remedies available for crew members under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act are for pecuniary loss, a wrongful death action for breach of warranty of seaworthiness under general maritime law was also restricted to pecuniary loss. The owner also supported its argument citing two circuit court cases that prohibited punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions.(10)
However, the district court denied the owner's argument, holding that unseaworthiness claims are not bound by the limited remedies under the Jones Act based on the Supreme Court analysis in Townsend. The court noted that punitive damages and unseaworthiness claims were well established before the Jones Act came into force. Neither the Jones Act nor any other federal statute has addressed or limited the availability of punitive damages for unseaworthiness actions.
This decision appears to expand seamen's remedies under general maritime law by permitting the recovery of punitive damages in an unseaworthiness action. However, because there are still circuit court decisions pre-dating Townsend which preclude a seaman from recovering punitive damages for an unseaworthiness claim based on the analysis in Miles, it is likely that this decision will be appealed and possibly clarified by the Supreme Court.
It is interesting that under the analysis in Miles and the holding in this case, an injured seaman would be allowed to recover punitive damages in an unseaworthiness claim, but if he died, his representative(s) would be restricted to pecuniary losses under the scope of damages in the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act.
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(4) This is not the first case addressing the issue after the holding in Townsend. In Wagner v Kona Blue Water Farms LLC, 2010 US Dist LEXIS 96105 (D Haw 2010), the US District Court for the District of Hawaii found the Ninth Circuit decision in Evich v Morris, 819 F2d 256 (9th Cir 1987) binding after interpreting the analysis in Townsend. In Evich, the Ninth Circuit held that punitive damages were available under general maritime law for claims of unseworthiness. However, due to the Supreme Court decision in Miles, the district court addressed the question of whether Evich is still good law.
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