Revisiting Availability of Punitive Damages to Jones Act Seaman Against Third-Party Non-Employer in Eastern District of Louisiana
We have previously discussed the opinion in Howard V. Offshore Liftboats, LLC, which dismissed a Jones Act seaman's punitive damages claim against a non-employer third party. 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 157173 (E.D. La. Nov. 19, 2015). Since our last publication, a sister court in the Eastern District of Louisiana in the case of Hume v. Consol. Grain & Barge, Inc. held that punitive damages are in fact available to seamen against non-employer third parties. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36183 (E.D. La. Mar. 21, 2016). In Hume, two employees were working on a vessel owned by a third party. The employees claimed that a running wire on the vessel broke and struck both men, hitting each of them in the face and head. Both employees filed suit against their Jones Act employer and against the third-party vessel owner, claiming serious personal injury. They also sought punitive damages from both defendants.
The employer and third-party vessel owner moved for dismissal of the punitive damage claims. The employer cited McBride v. Estis Well Service, in which the Fifth Circuit held that the Jones Act limits a seaman's recovery to pecuniary losses where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or unseaworthiness. The employer also relied upon Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, in which the Fifth Circuit held that neither a seaman who has invoked his Jones Act seaman status nor his survivors could recover punitive damages against a non-employer third party.
In plaintiffs' response to the motions, plaintiffs conceded that punitive damages were unavailable for Jones Act negligence and for unseaworthiness. Thus, the court granted the employer's motion and dismissed plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages arising from Jones Act negligence and from unseaworthiness.
With respect to the plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages against the third-party vessel owner, the plaintiffs relied on Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing, LLC, which declined to follow Scarborough, and held instead that punitive damages were available under general maritime law against a non-employer third party. The court in Collins noted that, since the Scarborough decision in 2004, the Supreme Court had held, in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, that a seaman could recover punitive damages for an employer's arbitrary withholding of maintenance and cure. Relying on Atlantic Sounding, the Collins court found that the Supreme Court had "effectively overruled" Scarborough.
In ruling on the vessel owner's motion, the Hume court adopted the reasoning set forth in Collins and held that a seaman's claims against a non-employer third party can include a claim for punitive damages. Therefore, the court held that plaintiffs could bring a cause of action against the non-employer for punitive damages under general maritime law.
Under Hume and the cases cited therein, Jones Act seamen will likely continue to seek punitive damages from non-employer third parties despite the cases that hold to the contrary.