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Punitive Damages on the High Seas

Recently, the US Supreme Court has accepted a case that will finally decide whether punitive damages are allowed for persons injured or killed while working at sea.  The case is McBride v. Estis Well Service and involves an incident aboard a barge with a truck-mounted drilling rig.  The rig toppled over, killing one crew member and injuring several others.  The family of the deceased worker and two of his former co-workers alleged that their employer, Estis, willfully ignored warnings concerning the dangerous condition of the rig.  The Supreme Court must now decide whether a seaman may recover punitive damages for the willful and wanton breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.

Historically, punitive damages have been available under general maritime law.  However, in 1920, Congress enacted the Jones Act to provide injured seamen a negligence cause of action against their employers if they were injured on the job.  The Act also allows for recovery against the employer for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure.  Unseaworthiness is a cause of action based upon the duty of a shipowner to provide a seaworthy vessel.  If the vessel is unfit for its mission or purpose, a cause of action for unseaworthiness is available.  Maintenance and cure is the employer’s responsibility to provide both maintenances (wages) and cure (medical care) until an injured seaman is deemed to reach maximum medical improvement.

In the 2009  US Supreme Court decision Townsend v. Atlantic Sounding, the Court upheld recovery of punitive damages under general maritime law for willful failure to provide an injured seaman with maintenance and cure.  Only time will tell if the Supreme Court allows punitive damages for unseaworthiness.  The circuit courts are split on the issue with the First, Fifth and Sixth Circuits holding no punitive damages for unseaworthiness and the Ninth and Eleventh (which controls in Florida) holding punitive damages are allowed.

The LaBovick Law Group has a litigation team specifically dedicated to maritime personal injury matters.  If you have been injured while on the water, call today for a free consultation.

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