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Reckless Disregard for Seaman’s Rights – Punitive Damages

Admiralty law is steeped in tradition. Many of its principles derive from sources as ancient as the maritime code of the Isle of Rhodes. But in the past two decades, the law of maritime personal injury has been in flux.

The pivot point is the U.S. Supreme Court case of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 48 U.S. 19 (1990). In that case, the Court held that only “pecuniary” claims could be made for wrongful death of a seaman. The case eliminated claims for loss of society and future lost income.

Subsequent lower court cases relied on the Miles opinion to deny recovery of punitive damages, which were deemed non-pecuniary. Punitive damages for wrongful failure of a shipowner to pay maintenance and cure, and for unseaworthiness, were withheld for nearly two decades.

Then in 2009, the Court decided the case of Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, 129 S.Ct. 2561 (2009). There, the Court upheld a claim for punitive damages for willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. The Court corrected the mistaken interpretation given Miles by the lower courts, and held that punitive damages are still available under the general maritime law, insofar as they were available before the Jones Act was passed in 1920.

Recently, lower courts have held that punitive damages are available not only is cases of wrongful failure to pay maintenance and cure, as established by Townsend, but for unseaworthiness resulting from callous disregard for crew safety. This rule was most recently applied in the matter of Osage Marine Services, Inc., Case No. 4:10-cv-1674, E.D. Mo. March 5, 2012. The Court stated: “Following the analysis of Atlantic Sounding, the Court concludes that punitive damages are available under general maritime law for unseaworthiness claims.”

These recent cases make it clear that an injured seaman is entitled to punitive damages if the cause of injury is “willful and wanton misconduct by the shipowner in the creation or maintenance of unseaworthy conditions.” In re Merry Shipping, Inc., 650 F.2d 622 (5th Cir. 1981). Such conduct reflects “a reckless disregard for the safety of the crew.”

As the Court in Merry Shipping observed:

“Punitive damages should be available when a shipowner has willfully violated the duty to furnish and maintain a seaworthy vessel. The shipowner’s duty stems from the recognition of ‘the hazards of marine service from unseaworthiness places on the men who perform it . . . and their helplessness to ward off such perils.’ Punitive damages would serve to deter and punish owners whose reckless acts increase these hazards.”

The net result of the Supreme Court decision in Townsend and its recent progeny is that the general maritime law of unseaworthiness is restored to its pre-Miles state. Unseaworthiness gives rise to a claim for compensatory damages, and unseaworthiness resulting from reckless disregard for crew safety warrants an additional award of punitive damages.

The lawfirm of Anderson Carey Alexander has represented injured seamen for more than three decades. In 1987, before Miles, the firm obtained a jury verdict for punitive damages for wrongful failure to pay maintenance and cure and for unseaworthiness against the largest tug company in the world. During the period after Miles, and before Townsend, we saw numerous cases where punitive damages would have been appropriate, often for delay or failure to pay maintenance and cure, and sometimes for unseaworthy conditions which were recklessly permitted to exist. In one post-Miles case, we secured a District Court ruling which sustained a punitive damages claim for wrongful failure to pay maintenance and cure. Ridenour v. Holland America Line, 806 F.Supp. 910 (W.D.Wash. 1992). But the Ninth Circuit subsequently ruled to the contrary in another seaman’s case.

On behalf of our seaman clients, we applaud restoration of the right to punitive damages in cases of maritime injury or death. In the area of payment of maintenance and cure, we have already seen the effect. Shipowners are less inclined to breach their sacred duty of paying these seaman’s benefits, now that they are faced with the prospect of punitive damages.

Restoration of punitive damages in cases of reckless disregard for crew safety will likewise have a salutary effect on shipowner conduct.

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