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October 2013

Influential U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals: Jones Act Seaman Can Recover Punitive Damages In General Maritime Law Unseaworthiness Claim

In McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 20187 (5th Cir.  Oct. 2, 2013), a panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of, if not the, most respected federal appellate courts when it comes to the development of maritime law in the United States, found that the Jones Act, which has been held to prohibit the recovery by seamen of non-pecuniary damages in a negligence claim brought under that statute, was no bar to the recovery of a form of non-pecuniary damages, specifically punitive damages, under the general maritime law in a seaman’s unseaworthiness action.  The Court described how punitive damages were available under the general maritime law long before the passage in 1920 of the Jones Act, and how the Jones Act did not expressly eliminate such damages.

The Fifth Circuit navigated around the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), by following the Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).  In Townsend, the Supreme Court wrote:

“Because punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because nothing in the Jones Act altered this understanding, such damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available in the appropriate case as a matter of general maritime law.  Limiting recovery for maintenance and cure to whatever is permitted by the Jones Act would give greater pre-emptive effect to the Act than is required by its text, Miles, or any of this Court’s other decisions interpreting the statute.”

The Fifth Circuit in McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C built on the foundation excavated by the Supreme Court in Townsend, writing:

“…Townsend established a straightforward rule going forward: if a general maritime law cause of action and remedy were established before the passage of the Jones Act, and the Jones Act did not address that cause of action or remedy, then that remedy remains available under that cause of action unless and until Congress intercedes.”


We viewed this as a good decision for our clients and the river industry workers we regularly represent.  Unfortunately, on September 25, 2014, all the judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, revisited this decision and overruled it, and on May 18, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review that decision.  Perhaps after this issue has been addressed by other federal circuit courts of appeal, and conflicts develop amongst the circuits, the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to address the issue of the recoverability by Jones Act seamen of both punitive and loss of consortium / loss of society damages under the general maritime law.  We believe they are recoverable under the sound logic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend.


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