In a consolidated asbestos products liability multidistrict litigation (MDL), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held in In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI), MDL 875, that punitive damages are allowed for unseaworthiness claims brought directly by an injured seaman, but not for claims brought by the seaman’s estate on his behalf after his death.
In a lengthy opinion, the MDL court discussed the history of maritime claims and the U.S. Supreme Court’s treatment of unseaworthiness claims, punitive damages, and wrongful death actions. The MDL court concluded that allowing seamen to recover punitive damages for injuries based on unseaworthiness claims was consistent with maritime common law and Supreme Court precedent.
Traditionally, general maritime law provided a seaman with only two causes of action against his employer: (1) a claim for “maintenance and cure” if a vessel owner failed to provide food, lodging, and medical services, or (2) a claim for “unseaworthiness” if defects in a ship or its equipment caused a seaman’s injuries. Notably, there was no general maritime cause of action for injuries caused by an employer’s negligence nor did general maritime law permit wrongful death or survival actions. Nonetheless, a seaman could, at least potentially, recover punitive damages under common law. See Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 409 (2009).
In 1920, Congress significantly expanded protection for seamen by passing the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). These statutes granted seamen a federal cause of action for employer negligence and allowed their survivors to pursue those claims after their deaths. The Jones Act and DOHSA precluded punitive damages, however, because they had been interpreted as limiting a seaman’s recovery to “pecuniary losses,” which are those losses that can be readily assigned a monetary value.
The MDL court noted that general maritime claims and claims under these federal statutes “operate in tandem, and they provide separate yet overlapping avenue for relief” but that “the two bodies of law are not seamless,” and courts are therefore left to address the overlap between the two. The court then discussed the Supreme Court’s approach to addressing this overlap with regard to whether seamen can recover punitive damages for general maritime claims.
In Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to, at least potentially, answer that question in the negative, concluding that the Jones Act’s bar on recovery for loss of society (a non-pecuniary loss) must also apply in a general maritime wrongful death action and declared that the court was “restor[ing] a uniform rule applicable to all actions for the wrongful death of a seaman, whether under DOHSA, the Jones Act, or general maritime law.” In 2009, however, the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Atlantic Sounding that the Jones Act “did not eliminate preexisting remedies available to seamen,” nor did Miles “require the narrowing of available damages to the lowest common denominator” between statutory and general maritime law. Accordingly, that court held that a seaman could recover punitive damages on a general maritime claim for maintenance and cure.
Here, in the asbestos MDL, the defendants argued that Atlantic Sounding’s limited holding should not be extended to unseaworthiness claims. They contended that the Jones Act, which allowed damages “for personal injury or death of a seamen” has a direct link to a common law unseaworthiness claim, a type of personal injury claim, but that no such link exists to a common law maintenance-and-cure claim, which is more like a quasi-contract claim. Therefore, defendants argued, the Miles court’s “uniformity” principle required the Jones Act’s prohibition on punitive damages to similarly apply to unseaworthiness claims. The court rejected this argument, reasoning (1) unseaworthiness claims and maintenance-and-cure claims both have elements of tort and contract, (2) because a seaman may choose to pursue either statutory or general maritime claims, the Jones Act should not be interpreted as limiting common law remedies, and (3) the key distinction between Miles and Atlantic Sounding was not the difference between unseaworthiness and maintenance-and-cure claims; rather, it was the difference between a claim for injury versus a claim for wrongful death. The court went on to explain that even though Atlantic Sounding’s holding is limited to claims for maintenance and cure, its reasoning equally applies to claims for unseaworthiness. Further, seamen who could establish willful and wanton conduct on the part of a shipowner should not be barred from claiming punitive damages. Accordingly, the court ruled that punitive damages can be awarded in unseaworthiness actions, as was the case at common law (at least in theory), without violating the Jones Act.
The court, however, made a critical distinction, finding that punitive damages are not permitted in wrongful death and survival actions given the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance in Miles. While the court acknowledged that it may seem “anomalous” for an injured seaman to be able to recover punitive damages while an estate of a seaman who is killed is unable to do so, “that is the result required by Supreme Court precedent.” The court also reasoned that this anomaly existed at common law and that no statute has extended the availability of punitive damages beyond a seaman’s lifetime.
The In re Asbestos Products decision and its reasoning may be a powerful tool for vessel owners to preclude punitive damages if faced with the unfortunate circumstance of having to defend a wrongful death or survival unseaworthiness claim. However, vessel owners should be aware that the only U.S. Court of Appeals to consider this issue (the Fifth Circuit) (McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 731 F.3d 505 (5th Cir. 2013), reh’g en banc granted, 743 F.3d 458 (2014)) did not similarly distinguish between direct claims from a seaman and claims by the seaman’s estate when it concluded that “punitive damages remain available to seamen as a remedy for the general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness.”