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Court rules punitive damages may be recovered under maritime law in lawsuit over drilling rig death

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that seamen may recover punitive damages for their employer’s willful and wanton breach of the general maritime law duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., No. 12–30714 (5 th Cir. October 2, 2013). The case involved Estis Rig 23, a barge supporting a drilling rig in a navigable waterway in Louisiana. Crew members were attempting to straighten a catwalk extending from the derrick when the derrick pipe shifted, causing the rig and truck to topple over. One crew member was fatally pinned between the oil derrick and mud tank, and three others were injured.

A lawsuit was filed against the owner of the barge, Estis Well Service, L.L.C., stating causes of action for unseaworthiness under general maritime law and negligence under the Jones Act and seeking compensatory as well as “punitive and/or exemplary” damages. Estis Well Service moved to dismiss the claims for punitive damages, arguing that punitive damages are not an available remedy for unseaworthiness or Jones Act negligence as a matter of law. The trial court granted the motion and entered judgment dismissing all claims for punitive damages. However, recognizing that the issues presented were “the subject of national debate with no clear consensus,” the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify the judgment for immediate review by the court of appeals. The Fifth Circuit has now reversed the district court and held that punitive damages are available under general maritime law.

Traditionally, general maritime law afforded ill and injured seamen two causes of action against ship-owners and employers. If a seaman became ill or injured while in the service of the ship, the seaman’s employer and the ship’s owner owed the seaman room and board (“maintenance”) and medical care (“cure”) without regard to fault, and, if not provided, the seaman had a claim against them for “maintenance and cure.” If a seaman was injured by a ship’s operational unfitness, the seaman had a cause of action for “unseaworthiness.”

General maritime law did not, however, provide seamen with a separate cause of action for personal injury resulting from employer negligence, nor did it permit wrongful death or survival claims on behalf of seamen killed during the course of their employment. To remedy those perceived gaps in general maritime law, Congress in 1920 enacted the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act which created causes of action for employer negligence in navigable waters and on the high seas, respectively, and authorized survival and wrongful death remedies. The Supreme Court has since recognized a parallel cause of action under general maritime law for employer negligence resulting in injury or death.

Historically, punitive damages, though not always designated as such, have been available and awarded in general maritime actions. In the early nineteenth century, Justice Story spoke of maritime punitive damages as “the proper punishment which belongs to . . . . lawless misconduct.” The Amiable Nancy, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 546, 558 (1818).

In Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 424 (2009), the Supreme Court held that punitive damages were available for maintenance and cure claims under general maritime law. Specifically, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that punitive damages should not be allowed under general maritime law because punitive damages would not be recoverable if the claim was asserted as a statutory cause of action brought under the Jones Act. The Supreme Court reasoned that “punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law,” including for egregious maintenance and cure violations, and concluded that “nothing in the Jones Act altered this understanding.” Id. at 424. The Jones Act “created a statutory cause of action for negligence, but it did not eliminate pre-existing remedies available to seamen for the separate common-law cause of action based on a seaman’s right to maintenance and cure.” Id. at 415–16. “Its purpose was to enlarge [seamen’s] protection, not to narrow it.” Id. at 417 Furthermore, the Jones Act specifically preserved the seaman’s right to “elect” between the remedies provided by the Jones Act and those recoverable under pre-existing general maritime law; “[i]f the Jones Act had been the only remaining remedy available to injured seamen, there would have been no election to make.” Id. at 416.

According to the Fifth Circuit, 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. The rule’s requirements were satisfied in this case: the cause of action (unseaworthiness) and the remedy (punitive damages) were both established for claims under general maritime law before the passage of the Jones Act, and the Jones Act does not address unseaworthiness or limit its remedies. Thus, the court of appeals concluded that punitive damages remain available to seamen as a remedy for the general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness. The case was sent back to the district court and will now move forward toward trial.

To successfully bring a claim involving an oil drilling rig or maritime law, clients need an experienced, educated attorney on their side. They also need an attorney with the financial resources to take the case to trial. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have tried literally hundreds of cases to verdict and have settled hundreds more, including claims under the Jones Act and general maritime law.

Our firm is AV-rated, the highest legal and ethical rating available from the leading law firm rating service. Our partners Michael Heygood, Jim Orr, and Eric Pearson are all Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Mr. Heygood and Mr. Orr are additionally Board Certified in Civil Trial Advocacy Law by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Our partners been voted by their peers as “Super Lawyers” in the state of Texas for several years in a row.*

If you have suffered a serious personal injury or a loved one has suffered a serious injury or death while working on a drilling rig or on a vessel such as a boat, ship or barge, you may have a claim for compensation. Contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson for your free case evaluation and to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out the free legal consultation form on this page.


Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2013.

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