McBride: Death Knell for a Seaman’s Right To Claim Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness

Posted on Monday, September 29th, 2014 | Posted in Resources & Publications

The Fifth Circuit has put to rest, at least in this circuit, the question of whether a seaman may recover punitive damages for Jones Act negligence or general maritime law unseaworthiness.  On September 25, 2014, the Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc and relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., answered the question in the negative, holding that punitive damages are not recoverable by seamen or their representatives under the Jones Act or under general maritime law.

The case arises out of an accident onboard Estis Rig 23, a barge supporting a truck-mounted drilling rig operating in Bayou Sorrell, a navigable waterway in Louisiana.  The truck rig fell over, injuring four crew members, one (Skye Sonnier) fatally.  At the time of the incident, Estis Well Service, LLC owned and operated Rig 23 and employed the crewmen.

Hayleigh McBride, individually, on behalf of Sonnier’s minor child, and as adminstratrix of Sonnier’s estate filed suit against Estis, stating causes of action for unseaworthinesss under general maritime law and negligence under the Jones Act (the “Act”) and seeking compensatory as well as punitive damages under both causes of action.  On motion by Estis, the district court dismissed the claims for punitive damages, finding they are not an available remedy where liability is based on unseaworthiness or the Act.  Recognizing the issue was unsettled, the district court certified the judgment for immediate appeal.

The original three-judge Fifth Circuit panel found that punitive damages were an available remedy to seaman or their representatives in a cause of action for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law.  McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC, 731 F.3d 505 (2013).  In reaching its decision, the panel relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding, Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 129 S.Ct. 2561, 174 L.Ed.2d 382 (2009), which addressed the question of whether a seaman can recover punitive damages from his employer for the  willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure.  Despite the limited scope of Townsend, the panel expanded Townsend’s reasoning to conclude that because both the unseaworthiness cause of action and the punitive damages remedy pre-dated the Jones Act, and were not addressed by the Act, both remained available to injured seamen or the representatives of deceased seamen.

The Fifth Circuit granted rehearing en banc to consider the issue, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex, which limited a seaman’s recovery for unseaworthiness under the Act or the general maritime law to pecuniary (as opposed to exemplary or punitive) damages.  Beginning with the recognition that the power to fix and determine the maritime law rests primarily with Congress, and not the courts, the majority briefly addressed the historical underpinnings of the Jones Act and the case law interpreting the remedies available thereunder.  A more robust historical discussion is included in the concurring opinion of Judge Clement, which closely examines the historic availability of punitive damages in pre-Jones Act unseaworthiness cases and cites to a case note by incoming Chaffe admiralty attorney, Laura Beck.

Following its historical rumination, the majority rejected the argument that the decision of the Supreme Court in Townsend overruled or undermined Miles, noting that the Court in Townsend “carefully distinguished its facts from Miles and reaffirmed that Miles is still good law.”  The court also rejected the half-hearted argument that punitive damages were a subset of pecuniary damages, highlighting the different goals of each—that pecuniary damages are designed to compensate the victim for actual loss whereas punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer.  What emerged from the analysis was an affirmation of the continued viability of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles and its holding that in a wrongful death case under the Jones Act or the general maritime law, a survivor’s recovery is limited to pecuniary losses.

The law of this circuit is now clear—seamen and their personal representatives are limited to recovering pecuniary damages for liability predicated on negligence under the Jones Act or unseaworthiness under general maritime law.

Contact Information

For more information about this alert, please contact

Katharine R. Colletta