At least as to claims involving economic and environmental losses, a United States District Court Judge in New Orleans made a significant ruling, finding that the United States Oil Pollution Act did not bar claimants from seeking punitive damages as the companies had argued.
Under the General Maritime Law, punitive damages have historically been available to claimants in all types of cases. However, over the years certain federal statutes have been interpreted as precluding an award of punitive damages. The Jones Act, a federal statute that applies to seamen in personal injury and wrongful death claims, has been interpreted not to allow for the recovery of punitive damages. Similarly, the Death on the High Seas Act, has been interpreted as precluding an award of punitive damages.
However, recently the United States Supreme Court in the case of Atlantic Sounding Co., v. Townsend, 129 S.Ct. 2561(2009), addressed whether a seaman could recover punitive damages under the General Maritime Law for the willful and arbitrary failure to provide maintenance and cure. The argument on the part of the shipping company was that punitive damages were no longer available under the General Maritime Law.
There has been a conflict in the decisions regarding the availability of non-pecuniary damages under the General Maritime Law when a statute does not speak directly to the claim in question. In Townsend, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that there was no bar to the recoverability of punitive damages on the part of seamen at least with respect to maintenance and cure actions. The Supreme Court did not find any such bar in any of the statutes that govern claims brought by seamen. The statutes were not applicable to maintenance and cure claims. Therefore the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that punitive damages survived under the General Maritime Law, at least for maintenance and cure claims.
In this recent decision by the federal judge in New Orleans, the federal judge similarly ruled that the United States Oil Pollution Act did not have any bearing on the General Maritime Law claims for punitive damages. The statute was silent and thus Congress did not occupy the area in question. Accordingly, the plaintiffs, with respect to the economic environmental losses, may now pursue claims under the General Maritime Law for punitive damages. The question remains whether seamen who were injured, or the families who are pursuing wrongful death claims, can also seek punitive damages under the General Maritime Law, or whether the prohibition of punitive damages read into the Death on the High Seas Act and the Jones Act will prevent such.
This is a major victory for claimants. Due to the amount of money involved, one can anticipate an appeal will be made from this federal judge’s ruling.
Our personal injury and wrongful death firm continues to be safety advocates for passengers and crewmembers injured at sea.