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WA State Supreme Court: Jones Act Seaman Can Recover Punitive Damages in Unseaworthiness Claim

In Tabingo v. American Triumph LLC, No. 92913-1 (Wa. March 9, 2017) (en banc), the Washington (state) Supreme Court held, as a matter of law, the issue of the recoverability of punitive damages in a Jones Act seaman’s general maritime law unseaworthiness claim is governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s analysis in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).  The Washington Supreme Court, frontally disagreeing with the oft-cited U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s en banc decision in McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), which held the issue of the recoverability of punitive damages in a GML unseaworthiness claim is controlled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), wrote:

“It followed Miles‘s reasoning, noting that because the Jones Act limits recovery of punitive damages for actions brought under it, the same result must occur when a Jones Act claim and general maritime claim are joined in the same action. McBride, 768 F.3d at 388-89. However, as discussed above, this rationale misinterprets both Miles and its interaction with TownsendMiles is limited to tort remedies grounded in statute. Unseaworthiness is not such a remedy. Congress has not directly addressed the damages available for an unseaworthiness claim. Because of this, following Townsend, punitive damages for unseaworthiness have not been curtailed. Absent an indication that a general maritime cause of action has been removed from the general maritime rule, common law remedies are still available. Therefore, we apply Townsend‘s rationale and find that punitive damages are available for unseaworthiness claims.”

The facts of the underlying serious injury, as alleged by the plaintiff, Allan Tabingo, as summarized by the Court, are as follows:

“In February 2015, Tabingo was tasked with moving the fish below decks. He was on his knees near the hatch’s hinge, gathering the last remaining fish, when another deckhand started closing the hatch. Realizing how close Tabingo’ s hands were to the hatch, the deckhand attempted to correct his mistake. However, the hatch’s control handle was broken and the deckhand could not stop the hatch. The hydraulic hatch closed on Tabingo’ s hand, resulting in the amputation of two fingers. Tabingo alleges that American Seafoods knew about the broken handle for two years before the incident but had failed to repair it.”


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