Legal Blog

Defending Maritime Cases: No Punitives Against Non-Employer Tortfeasor

A recent case out of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana has confirmed that punitive damages are NOT available under the Jones Act, under general maritime law, or for a maintenance and cure claim against a non-employer third-party tortfeasor. See Wiltz v. MI, LLC, Civil Action No. 17-4943 (US Dist. E.D. Louisiana, January 29, 2018). Here is a quick rundown of the case.

Defending Maritime Cases: Facts of Wiltz v. MI, LLC

 In 2016, the plaintiff, Gerald Wiltz, suffered personal injuries which were allegedly sustained after he was exposed to hydrogen sulfide aboard the drill ship M/V Deepwater Reliance (“Reliance”). Wiltz sued his employer, the owner of the Reliance, the leaseholder and operator of the Reliance, and a third-party tortfeasor. The plaintiff asserted claims under the Jones Act, claims of unseaworthiness under general maritime law, and claims for maintenance and cure.

As part of his complaint, the plaintiff requested punitive damages against the defendants based upon general maritime law and alleged arbitrary and/or unreasonable failure of defendants to pay maintenance and cure benefits, for gross negligence of the defendants and for the unseaworthiness of the vessel. The leaseholder and the third-party defendants filed Motions to Dismiss, arguing that punitive damages are not available to seamen against them — they being non-employer third parties.

In defending against the Motions to Dismiss, the plaintiff argued that the US Supreme Court case of Atlantic Sounding, Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009) (“Townsend“) provided the basis for a claim for punitive damages. In Townsend, the US Supreme Court allowed that punitive damages are available for a claim of maintenance and cure — in particular, punitive damages were available for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligations as a matter of general maritime law. In so holding, the court made it clear that a seaman has potential remedies for negligence under the Jones act, for unseaworthiness, and for maintenance and cure. As the court stated: “It is unquestioned law that both the Jones Act and the unseaworthiness remedies are additional to maintenance and cure: the seaman may have maintenance and cure and also one of the other two.” Punitive damages are NOT available for the first two, but ARE available for the maintenance and cure claim.

In Wiltz, the plaintiff argued that Townsend should be extended to claims against third party non-employer tortfeasors. However, the District Court rejected the invitation and dismissed the claims for punitive damages against the non-employer third parties.

Defending Maritime Cases: Wiltz Result Consistent with Previous Fifth Circuit Cases

 In holding that no punitive damages were available under the Jones Act and for unseaworthiness under general maritime law, the District Court relied on the holdings in McBride v. Estis Well Service., L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) and Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, Inc., 391 F.3d 660 (5th Cir. 2004). In McBride, the Fifth Circuit held that a seaman and his personal representative could not recover punitive damages for a claim of unseaworthiness under either the Jones Act or under general maritime law. In Scarborough, the court held that a Jones Act seaman’s survivors could not recover non-pecuniary damages against a non-employer third party in a maritime wrongful death action. Scarborough was a sandblaster and developed silicosis over years of breathing in the silica particles.

With respect to punitive damages for maintenance and cure claims, the court did not fully discuss the issue but reached the correct result since, generally speaking, maintenance and cure obligations apply to employers and vessel owners. The movants in Wiltz were neither the plaintiff’s employer or the owner of the vessel.

Louisiana Maritime Defense: Contact New Orleans Attorney Kristin M. Lausten

When defending maritime and Jones Act cases, it is important for defense counsel to use all the available arguments.

If you need additional information, contact Louisiana attorney Kristin M. Lausten. Ms. Lausten has experience in maritime law and defends complex tort litigation in both state and federal courts. She can be contacted at 504.377.6585 or via email at kristin@kristinlausten.com.

The author may be contacted at:

Kristin M. Lausten

New Orleans, Louisiana
Telephone: 504.377.6585
E-mail: kristin@kristinlausten.com
Web: www.kristinlausten.com

This article is provided as an educational service for general informational purposes only. The material does not constitute legal advice or rendering of professional services.