Following the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in McBride v. Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382, 391 (5th Cir. 2014), we reported that punitive damages had “expired and gone to meet their maker” when it comes to Jones Act seamen. As it turns out, they were only mostly dead. In Corey Hume et al. v. Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc. et al., No. CA 15-0935, 2016 WL 1089349, at *1 (E.D. La. Mar. 21, 2016), Judge Zainey of the Eastern District ruled that punitive damages are still recoverable by Jones Act seamen against non-employer third parties.
The Plaintiffs, who were employees of defendant Consolidated Grain, were working aboard a vessel owned by defendant Quality Marine Services when a running wire of the vessel struck each of them in the face and head, resulting in brain injuries and facial disfigurement. The Plaintiffs sued Quality Marine for punitive damages under general maritime law. Quality Marine moved to dismiss, arguing that, pursuant to McBride v. Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382, 391 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2310 (2015) (which held that an injured seaman cannot recover punitive damages against his employer), and Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, 391 F.3d 660, 668 (5th Cir. 2004) (which held that a seaman who invokes Jones Act status cannot recover punitive damages against a non-employer third party), Plaintiffs were not able under general maritime law to recover punitive damages from Quality Marine.
The court disagreed. Relying on another recent decision from the Eastern District, Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing, L.L.C., 14-1900, 2015 WL 5254710 (E.D. La. Sept. 9, 2015), the court declined to follow the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Scarborough, finding Scarborough had been “effectively overruled” by the Supreme Court in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009). The court held instead that the Jones Act forecloses a seaman’s recovery for non-pecuniary loss in maritime cases only with respect to his employer. With respect to a non-employer tortfeasor such as Quality Marine, to whom the Jones Act does not apply, no statutory regime exists that conflicts with general maritime law remedies, and thus punitive damages may be recoverable. In the end, the court held that the “takeaway from Townsend” was that a seaman may recover punitive damages under general maritime law if the Jones Act is not implicated, and denied Quality Marine’s motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim.