The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently concluded that Jones Act seamen can recover punitive damages for their employer’s willful and wanton breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel, in McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., No. 12 – 30714 (5th Cir. Oct. 2, 2013). The jurisprudential history behind this result resembles a slowly rebounding yo – yo that oscillates over a period of decades.
In 1981, the Fifth Circuit concluded that punitive damages may be recovered under the general maritime law upon a showing of willful and wanton misconduct by the ship owner in the creation or maintenance of unseaworthy conditions. In re Merry Shipping, Inc., 650 F.2d 622, 623 (5th Cir. Unit B 1981). However, the health of the Merry Shipping decision took a turn for the worse, starting with the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 27 (1990), in which the Supreme Court concluded that the pecuniary damages limitations under both the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104, and the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), 46 U.S.C. § 30301 et seq., likewise limited the damages recoverable by the seaman’s estate for wrongful death caused by the unseaworthiness of the vessel under the general maritime law. Although the recoverability of punitive damages was not before the Supreme Court, a plethora of intermediate appellate court decisions seized on the pecuniary damages limitation of the Miles decision for general maritime law claims involving seamen to conclude that punitive damages, which were clearly non – pecuniary, were likewise not recoverable under the general maritime law for vessel unseaworthiness.
The death of Merry Shipping was initially reported by the en banc Fifth Circuit in Guevara v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 59 F.3d 1496 (5th Cir. 1995) (en banc), which concluded that Miles effectively had overruled Merry Shipping and that punitive damages were not available under the general maritime law for willful nonpayment of maintenance and cure. Id. at 1513. In light of the Guevara decision, those few remaining doubtful jurists ultimately concluded that punitive damages were not available to a Jones Act seaman in an action for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law.
Fourteen years after Guevara, the Supreme Court, in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), restored the availability of punitive damages for maintenance and cure claims under the general maritime law. The Townsend Court reached this conclusion for two reasons: (1) the general maritime cause of action for maintenance and cure preceded the enactment of the Jones Act and (2) punitive damages were an available remedy under the general maritime law when the Jones Act was enacted. Because the Jones Act did not expressly address either maintenance and cure or punitive damages, both remained available after its passage in 1920. Id. at 414 – 15. In so holding the Townsend court abrogated the Guevara decision.
Following the precedent of Townsend, the Fifth Circuit in McBride has completed this particular cycle of the punitive damages yo – yo and reinstated the holding of the 1981 Merry Shipping decision. Punitive damages are once again available to seamen who are injured or killed by the ship owner’s willful and wanton misconduct in creating an unseaworthy condition. McBride at 2 & 20. Or as the hapless villager tried to explain in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “But I’m not dead yet!”