A recent ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals clears the way for seaman to recover punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims, according to Jones Act attorney Matthew Shaffer.
In the facts of the case, McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., No. 12 – 30714, a man was killed and three others injured while working on a barge supporting a truck-mounted drilling rig in south Louisiana. The original lawsuit claimed negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness under general maritime law.
Shaffer, a Jones Act attorney with the Houston maritime law firm Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, said the ruling is significant for injured workers.
“Allowing punitive damages is a big incentive for vessel owners to provide a safe work environment for seamen and offshore workers,” Shaffer said. “Worker safety should be priority No. 1, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.”
The plaintiffs in the case requested punitive damages, which were dismissed during trial. In the Oct. 2, 2013 ruling by the Fifth Circuit, the court reversed the decision, saying that punitive damages are allowed in unseaworthiness claims when the ship’s owner shows a “willful and wanton breach of the general maritime law duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.”
Under U.S. maritime laws, a vessel owner is responsible for providing safe and secure working conditions. Jones Act attorneys know that there are a wide range of causes for unseaworthiness claims, such as slippery walking surfaces, unstable vessel structure, poor vessel design, lack of safety equipment, lack of training, defective equipment and more.
“When a vessel owner’s negligence causes injury and death, they absolutely should pay,” Shaffer said.
The court reasoned that punitive damages were available for unseaworthiness claims under general maritime law before the Jones Act was passed in 1920, and the Jones Act did not address unseaworthiness or limit remedies under this law.