Seamen Can Recover Punitive Damages in an Unseaworthiness Claim

When a seaman suffers a personal injury during the scope of his employment, he can bring a negligence action under the Jones Act against his employer. He also can bring an action against the shipowner for unseaworthiness. Unseaworthiness is a legal term, but in the context of a claim by a seaman, means that something aboard the vessel was not reasonably fit for its intended use. This can include a procedure at work or a job method. It can include assigning too few persons to a particular job task. It is a form of strict liability.

Previously, the Supreme Court had decided the case of Miles vs. Apex Marine Corp., which dealt with the damages available to a seaman in a wrongful death case. The Supreme Court ruled the damages needed to be uniform between the Jones Act and general maritime law in a wrongful death case, and denied loss of society damages to the spouse of the seaman who died.

Following the Miles decision, there were decisions questioning the availability of punitive damages to a seaman under the general maritime law.

Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Atlantic Sounding Co. Inc. v. Townsend, ruling that punitive damages can be extended to general maritime law claims unless a specific act of Congress had been enacted stating otherwise. In Townsend, the seaman was allowed to pursue his claim for punitive damages for failure to provide maintenance and cure.

In a recent decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, the court, utilizing the logic of the Townsend case, and ruled that a seaman can recover punitive damages under the general maritime law for the unseaworthiness of the ship.

The District Court pointed out that punitive damages were well established before the Jones Act was enacted. Although the Jones Act has been interpreted not to allow for punitive damages, the District Court said the reasoning in Townsend did not support limiting the general maritime law claim similarly to deny the seaman his claim for punitive damages for his unseaworthiness claim.

There are contrary decisions of district courts after Miles which have stated that punitive damages are not available for an unseaworthiness claim under the general maritime law. If this particular case is not settled, one would expect the shipowner will appeal this decision. Once the Appellate Courts start addressing the effects of the Townsend decision, in conjunction with the prior decision in Miles, we may see this issue end up before the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Alaska Supreme Court has also recognized punitive damages in Clausen v Icicle Seafoods, Inc., 272 P.2d 827 (Alaska March 15,2012). And, punitives have been acknowledged for a Jones Act seaman in his unseaworthiness claim in In re Osage, 2012 WL 709188 (E.D. Mo. 2012).

Our Miami based law firm represents seamen from all over the world who have suffered injuries, and represent family members when a seaman has been killed during his work onboard a vessel.