U.S. District Court in Missouri Holds That Punitive Damages Are Available for Unseaworthiness Claims

Published Dec 17, 2012 1:23 PM by Philip C. Brickman

Written by Philip C. Brickman

A U.S. District Court of Missouri recently held that a seaman may seek punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims under the general maritime law.  In In re Osage Marine Services, Inc. , Craig Woodfin was serving as a mate onboard the towboat M/V CARRIE ELIZABETH operating on the Mississippi River in Missouri.  Woodfin was injured when his left foot came into contact with a deckfitting on a barge.  The vessel owner filed a Complaint pursuant to the Limitation of Vessel Owner’s Liability Act  alleging that Woodfin’s injuries were not caused by the vessel owner of the vessel owner’s employees.  Woodfin filed an Answer and Claim in the limitation proceeding asserting that the vessel owner was negligent, failed to provide maintenance and cure and operated an unseaworthy vessel.  Woodfin also sought punitive damages on all claims.

The vessel owner filed for a judgment on the pleadings in respect to Woodfin’s punitive damages allegation on the unseaworthiness claim.  A motion for judgment on the pleadings is where party files a motion asserting that there is no dispute as to any material facts as alleged in the pleadings and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The vessel owner argued that general maritime law does not permit recovery of punitive damages for claims based on the doctrine of unseaworthiness.  The vessel owner cited to the well known decision Miles v. Apex Marine Corp.,  where the mother of a deceased seaman attempted to recover damages for loss of society and lost future earnings in a wrongful death action against her son’s employer.  In Miles, the issue before the Court was whether nonpecuniary damages were available under the general maritime law.  The Supreme Court ultimately held that nonpecuniary damages were not available in wrongful death actions because both the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act only provide for recovery of punitive damages.  If Congress had intended for those statutes to allow recovery of pecuniary loss, it would have included such provisions in the legislation.  Because there was no such provision, the Supreme Court held that it would be inconsistent with Congressional intent to expand upon the remedies for wrongful death actions by providing recovery for loss of society and loss of future earnings.

In Osage, the vessel owner further argued that the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Miles also applies to the recovery of punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims.  The vessel owner argued that because punitive damages are not available under the Jones Act, it would be inconsistent to award punitive damages under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness.  The vessel owner cited to authority from both the First and Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals prohibiting punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims.

However, Woodfin argued that the First and Sixth Circuit authorities have been overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in Atlantic Sounding Co. Inc. v. Townsend .  In Atlantic Sounding, the Supreme Court held that as a matter of general maritime law, a seaman could seek punitive damages in a maintenance and cure claim.  This holding was based on the Court’s reasoning that punitive damages have been long available at common law, and that the common law tradition of punitive damages extends to maritime claims.  Further, because neither the Jones Act nor any other federal legislation addresses maintenance and cure or its remedy, there is no evidence that punitive damages are an inappropriate remedy for maintenance and cure claims.  Therefore, a seaman is entitled to pursue punitive damages for maintenance and cure claims unless Congress has enacted legislation departing from this undertaking.

The Supreme Court also clarified how federal courts should interpret the Miles decision.  The Supreme Court explained that Miles deals with whether the general maritime law should provide a remedy for wrongful death actions where damages for such actions have been limited by Congress.   Atlantic Sounding, however deals with a cause of action and remedy that have not been addressed or limited by Congress.  Therefore, Miles does not limit a seaman’s recovery for punitive damages in maintenance and cure claim.  Based on this reasoning, Woodfin argued that he has a right to claim punitive damages for unseaworthiness because Congress has not limited remedies available in unseaworthiness claims.  The District Court ultimately agreed with Woodfin and held that unseaworthiness is a general maritime action that was well established before the passage of the Jones Act.  Further, punitive damages were well established as a remedy in general maritime law before the passage of the Jones Act.  Because there is no federal statute limiting availability of punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims, Woodfin has a cause of action for such damages.

This decision is one that should be closely watched, as it broadens a seaman’s remedies under the general maritime law.  It is likely that the decision will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for clarification because there are Court of Appeals decisions which predate the Atlantic Sounding case that preclude a seaman from recovering punitive damages on an unseaworthiness claim under the Supreme Court’s analysis in the Miles case. 

There is also an inconsistency with the District Court’s holding in that an injured seaman actually has broader rights to recovery in an unseaworthiness claim, than he does if he succumbs to his injuries.  In that case, he is restricted from claiming nonpecuniary damages under the Jones Act and Death on the High Seas Act.

Please contact Phil Brickman at (504)523-2600 or [email protected] for further information on these issues.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.