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Revisiting (Again) the Availability of Punitive Damages to Jones Act Seamen Against Third-Party Non-Employers in Eastern District of Louisiana

We have previously discussed opinions from the Eastern District of Louisiana in Howard v. Offshore Liftboats, LLC, No. 13-4811, 2015 WL 7428581, 2016 A.M.C. 112 (E.D. La. Nov. 20, 2015) (Morgan, J.), and Hume v. Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc., No. 15-0935, 2016 WL 1089349, 2016 A.M.C. 1291 (E.D. La. Mar. 21, 2016) (Zainey, J.). These opinions, rendered by different sections of the Eastern District of Louisiana, reached differing conclusions as to whether punitive damages are available to Jones Act seamen against third-party non-employers. As discussed in this article, however, recent developments suggest that the differing conclusions on this issue may be coming to an end.

 To briefly summarize our prior articles, in Howard v. Offshore Liftboats, LLC, the Howard court dismissed a Jones Act seaman's punitive damages claim against a third-party non-employer, concluding that, pursuant to binding Fifth Circuit precedent, non-pecuniary damages are not available under the General Maritime Law. However, in Hume v. Consolidated Grain and Barge, Inc., the court reached the opposite conclusion, finding that non-pecuniary damages are available against a third-party non-employer under the General Maritime Law. The Howard court sided with the prior decision in Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing LLC, No. 14-1900, 2015 WL 5254710, 2015 A.M.C. 2491 (E.D. La. Sept. 9, 2015) (Fallon, J.). Therefore, as of March 2016, there appeared to exist a split in the Eastern District of Louisiana as to whether a seaman could recover punitive damages from a third-party non-employer under the General Maritime Law. However, a February 2017 ruling in Wade v. Clemco Industries Corp., No. 16-502, 2017 WL 434425 (E.D. La. Feb. 1, 2017) (Fallon, J.), suggests that there may  no longer be a split of authority.

In Wade v. Clemco Industries Corp., the court seemingly reversed course from the prior decision in Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing LLC, dismissing a seaman's claims for punitive damages against a third-party non-employer. The Wade court concluded that a seaman's damages against his or her employer and non-employers are limited to pecuniary losses. The Wade decision, like the decision in Howard v. Offshore Liftboats, LLC, relied heavily on the Fifth Circuit's en banc opinion in McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), wherein the Fifth Circuit reaffirmed the principle that only pecuniary damages are recoverable by a seaman and his or her survivors for personal injury or wrongful death under the Jones Act and the General Maritime Law. Furthermore, the Wade court concluded that the Fifth Circuit's en banc decision in McBride effectively endorsed and breathed life back into the Fifth Circuit's prior decision in Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, Inc., 391 F.3d 660 (5th Cir. 2004), which specifically held that a seaman may not recover punitive damages against either his or her employer or a non-employer third party.

As noted above, both the Collins and Hume decisions declined to follow McBride and Scarborough, concluding that the United States Supreme Court's 2009 decision in Atlantic Sounding Co v. Townsend had "effectively overruled" Scarborough and, as a result, that non-pecuniary damages are available to seamen against third-party non-employers under the General Maritime Law. However, the more recent decision in Wade reveals a change, suggesting that the more appropriate and correct outcome under Fifth Circuit precedent is that seamen are not able to recover punitive damages against third-party non-employers under the General Maritime Law. 

Although the Fifth Circuit has not weighed in on this specific issue, it appears that a trend is developing in the Eastern District of Louisiana. With the recent decision in Wade, the weight of authority in the Eastern District suggests that seamen are unable to recover punitive damages from third-party non-employers under the General Maritime Law. Nevertheless, the prior decisions in Collins and Hume have not been overruled, so Jones Act seamen will likely continue to seek punitive damages against third-party non-employers.

© 2019 Jones Walker LLP

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About this Author

Christopher Ulfers, Jones Walker Law Firm, Admiralty and Maritime Attorney
Associate

Christopher Ulfers is an associate in the firm's Admiralty & Maritime Practice Group and practices from the New Orleans office. Prior to joining Jones Walker, Mr. Ulfers externed for Chief Judge Brian A. Jackson of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana and served as a judicial law clerk for Judge Susie Morgan of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Mr. Ulfers is a 2015 graduate of the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University, where he received his juris doctor...

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