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Maritime Update: Punitive Damages Allowed for Unseaworthiness Claim


Allan A. Tabingo v American Triumph LLC et al (decided March 9, 2017 en banc)

On March 9, 2017, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled that an injured Alaskan commercial fisherman could claim punitive damages when injured as a result of the unseaworthiness of his vessel. The case was filed by a deckhand trainee, Allan Tabingo, who suffered near complete amputation of two fingers while working as a deckhand aboard the AMERICAN TRIUMPH. Tabingo was on his hands and knees clearing fish from a fish hatch when a fellow crewman improperly activated the controls causing the hatch to close crushing and ultimately severing two of Tabingo’s fingers. Realizing his mistake, the crewman attempted to stop closing the hatch, but the control handle for the hatch was broken and did not work. Tabingo alleged American Seafoods knew about the broken control handle for the hatch for over two years prior to his injury, but failed to repair it.

Tabingo filed suit against the vessel operator. He asserted Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims. General maritime law is the body of common law developed over time by the courts. Tabingo sought compensatory damages for all of his claims and punitive damages for his unseaworthiness claim. The trial court ruled that under Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., the Jones Act precluded the damages available under an unseaworthiness claim and dismissed the punitive damages claim. The Washington State Supreme Court accepted the case for direct review.

In rendering its decision, the Washington Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that the general maritime law claim for unseaworthiness had a long history that predated Congress’s enactment of the Jones Act negligence claim. In their opinion, the two claims remained independent causes of action. The Court also found that neither the United States Supreme Court nor the Washington Supreme Court had ruled on whether punitive damages are available under a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim.

In the absence of any such precedent, the Court relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v Townsend, which found punitive damages are available under general maritime law for a maintenance & cure claim where a seaman’s employer willfully disregarded its maintenance and cure obligations. Three points were central to the Townsend court’s decision:

(1) the pre-existing availability of punitive damages under common law;

(2) the tradition of extending punitive damages to maritime claims; and

(3) the intent (or lack thereof) to exclude punitive damages for a particular maritime claim.

The Washington Supreme Court concluded that all three factors supported the availability of punitive damages in a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim. First, they found that punitive damages historically were available at common law and those common law damages extend to general maritime law. Additionally, the Washington court read Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. as applying only to wrongful death actions and there was no intent to exclude punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims relating to injuries. The Court also distinguished McBride v. Estis Well Service, an en banc decision of the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held punitive damages were unavailable for an unseaworthiness claim. The Washington court insisted the McBride court misinterpreted both the Miles and Townsend decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Finally, the Court found that the longstanding policy of treating seamen with particular care would be advanced by allowing recovery of punitive damages for injuries caused by “reckless to malicious conduct.” An award of punitive damages would also serve as an example to other vessel operators. The court noted that allowing for punitive damages in cases such as Tabingo’s would be consistent with protecting seaman who are the “wards of the maritime courts.”

The decision of McBride v. Estis Well Service still takes precedence and is controlling in the Fifth Circuit which includes Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Unless and until the matter is taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, this decision by the Washington court should not be effective in our courts.

You can read the full decision here: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/929131.pdf

If you have any questions regarding this matter, please contact Bill Schwartz at (504) 569-2900 or wschwartz@bhbmlaw.com.


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