On May 22, 2017, Judge Mary Ann Lemmon of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana rendered a decision which traced the case law history on punitive damages for a seaman. Following her review, she ruled in Darrin Rockett v Belle Chasse Marine Transportation that a seaman cannot recover punitive damages based on negligence or the general maritime law against a non-employer third party.
By way for factual background, the plaintiff, Darrin Rockett, filed the lawsuit against his employer, Belle Chasse Marine and St. John Fleeting. Rockett sought damages for injuries he allegedly sustained in a maritime accident that occurred on January 29, 2016. On that date, he was employed as the captain of the M/V MR. FRED, a vessel owned and operated by Belle Chasse. It was his claim he sustained injuries to his head and other parts of his body when the M/V MR. FRED struck a bouy in the Mississippi River that Rockett alleged was owned and maintained by St. John Fleeting. Rockett set out a general maritime law negligence claim against St. John for which he sought punitive damages. St. John filed a Motion to Dismiss the punitive claim, for which Judge Lemmon ultimately agreed.
In its motion, St. John argued Jones Act seaman cannot recover non-pecuniary damages, including punitive damages, from a third-party non-employer for a general maritime law negligence claim. St. John cited as authority the maritime law precedent set by the Supreme Court of the United States in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 111 S.Ct. 317 (1990) and by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, 391 F.3d 660 (5th Cir. 2004) and McBride v. Estis Well Serv., LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc).
In response, Rockett argued the court should follow other decisions by other judges of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana who held that Scarborough was effectively overruled by the U. S. Supreme Court decision of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 129 S.Ct. 2561 (2009), which dealt with maintenance and cure. These two decisions were by Judge Fallon in the case of Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing, L.L.C., 2015 WL 2524710 (E.D. La. Sept. 9, 2015) and by Judge Zainey in the case of Hume v. Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc., 2016 1089349 (E.D. La. March 21, 2016).
In her analysis, Judge Lemmon noted that in Miles, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a Jones Act seaman’s survivors cannot recover non-pecuniary damages for wrongful death against the seaman’s employer under either the Jones Act or general maritime law. The court stated that such a result was “in accordance with the uniform plan of maritime tort law Congress”, created by the statutory Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) and the Jones Act. The Supreme Court in Miles held “it would not judicially create a more expansive remedy than Congress established in its ‘ordered system of recovery for seamen’s injury and death.'”
Following this decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit relied on “the Miles uniformity principle” in the Scarborough case to hold that neither a Jones Act seaman nor his survivors can recover non-pecuniary damages under general maritime law from a third-party non-employer tortfeasor.
Years later, the Supreme Court in Townsend held that a seaman may recover punitive damages for his employer’s willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure. The Court explored the history of punitive damages in the maritime law, particularly in the maintenance and cure context, noting that “prior to enactment of the Jones Act in 1920, maritime case law had a number of judges and cases approve punitive damages, especially on behalf of passengers and seamen.” However, the Supreme Court explained in Townsend that Miles did not control because it did not address maintenance and cure actions or the availability of punitive damages for such actions.
The Townsend court found that allowing punitive damages “for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available in the appropriate case as a matter of general maritime law”, because such damages “have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law,” which was not altered by any provision of the Jones Act. In so ruling, the Townsend court specifically noted that the “reasoning of Miles remains sound.” According to Judge Lemmon, the “reasoning to which the Court referred is that, prior to the Jones Act and DOHSA, there was no general common law cause of action for wrongful death on the high seas or in territorial waters. Thus, the courts must look to that legislation for policy guidance, and “[i]t would have been illegitimate to create common-law remedies that exceeded those remedies statutorily available under the Jones Act and DOHSA.” As a result, Judge Lemmon concluded maintenance and cure and punitive damages related to such claims existed before the Jones Act and DOHSA and was not altered by them. Therefore, she noted that Townsend addressed only punitive damages being available under general maritime law for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation.
Continuing with the historical analysis, following Townsend, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc, in the case of McBride v. Estis Well examined the effect of the decision in Townsend on the reach of Miles. The court held that neither a Jones Act seaman, nor his survivors, can recover punitive damages against the seaman’s employer for personal injury or wrongful death claims based on either the Jones Act or general maritime law. In so doing, the McBride court stated that “[t]he Supreme Court, in Townsend, did not overrule Miles. Rather it took pains to distinguish that maintenance and cure case from Miles and confirmed that ‘[t]he reasoning of Miles remains sound.'”
Later, in Collins, Judge Fallon recounted the maritime law history and found that Townsend effectively overruled Scarborough. Judge Fallon therefore concluded that “[t]he takeaway from Townsend, the governing Supreme Court law on the availability of punitive damages under general maritime law, is that a seaman can recover punitive damages under general maritime law if the Jones Act is not implicated[,]” such as for negligence claims against a third-party non-employer. Following this decision, Judge Zainey adopted the reasoning of Collins in Hume and held that a seaman could pursue a punitive damages claim against a third-party non-employer tortfeasor under general maritime law.
A third judge from the Eastern District of Louisiana, Judge Morgan, held that a seaman cannot recover punitive damages against a third-party non-employer for negligence or unseaworthiness under general maritime law in her decision in Howard v. Offshore Liftboats, LLC, 2015 WL 7428581 (E.D. La. Nov. 20, 2015). When dismissing the punitive damage claim, Judge Morgan stated:
“as even Collins recognizes, the Townsend decision is specific to the maintenance-and-cure context and does not address whether punitive damages are available for claims of unseaworthiness. In fact, the Townsend Court took pains to distinguish maintenance and cure, for which it concluded punitive damages are available, from a seaman’s remedies for negligence and unseaworthiness, for which punitive damages are generally not available under Miles, Scarborough, and McBride. As other courts in this district have recognized, although Townsend may give hope to seamen wishing to obtain punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims against their employers and non-employers, this Court cannot assume the Fifth Circuit has changed its position on personal injury claims falling outside the scope of Townsend. Further, the Court notes that the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Scarborough, which held that a seaman may not recover punitive damages against either his employer or a non-employer, is binding on this Court and has never been overruled.”
Interestingly, two years after Collins, Judge Fallon reversed his own decision in the matter of Wade v. Clemco Indus. Corp., 2017 WL 434425 (E.D. La. Feb. 1, 2017). In the Wade decision, Judge Fallon again explored the applicable maritime jurisprudence of Miles, Scarborough, Townsend and McBride. However, this time, after his evaluation, he stated that:
“It has become clear since the en banc opinion in McBride that in wrongful death cases brought under general maritime law, a survivor’s recovery from employers and non-employers is limited to pecuniary losses. This is supported by the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, which held a seaman may not recover punitive damages against either his employer or a non-employer third party. While the Scarborough decision at one time seemed to be undermined by Townsend, it has been given clarity and vitality by the en banc decision in McBride. Scarborough is based on Miles, which is the foundation for the Fifth Circuit’s en banc decision in McBride . . . the Fifth Circuit has now made it clear that under both the Jones Act and general maritime law, a seaman’s damages against both employers and non-employers are limited to pecuniary losses. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims for non-pecuniary damages in this case are controlled by the Fifth Circuit’s holdings in McBride and Scarborough, and must be dismissed.”
Judge Fallon reached the same conclusion two months later in his ruling in Rinehardt v. Nat’l Oilwell Varco L.P., 2017 WL 1407699 (E.D. La. April 20, 2017), where the injured seaman plaintiff sought punitive damages against a third-party non-employer for negligence under general maritime law.
Judge Lemmon concluded in Rockett that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had not overruled Scarborough. Accordingly, she found it was the law of the Fifth Circuit that neither a seaman nor a seaman’s survivors can recover punitive damages from a non-employer third-party for negligence and unseaworthiness claims under general maritime law. She therefore granted St. John’s motion to dismiss and found that Rockett’s punitive damages claim against St. John were to be dismissed with prejudice.