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Defending Unseaworthiness Claims: Fifth Circuit’s No-Punitive-Damages Decision in McBride Rejected by Ninth Circuit

Kristin Lausten Lawyer

In general, punitive damages are an available remedy for most claims under general maritime law, but not under some statutory schemes like the Jones Act. However, for general maritime law, an exception was created a few years ago by the Fifth Circuit for unseaworthiness claims. See McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC, 768 F. 3d 382 (US 5th Circuit 2014). In that case, the Fifth Circuit held that controlling US Supreme Court precedent limited a seaman’s recovery under a seaworthiness claim to “pecuniary” losses. The Fifth Circuit held punitive damages to be “non-pecuniary” losses and therefore NOT recovered.

Recently with respect to unseaworthiness claims, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in sharp disagreement with the McBride decision. See Batterton v. Dutra Group, No. 15-56775, D.C. No. 2:14-cv-07887-PJW (9th Cir. Jan. 23, 2018).

Defending Unseaworthiness Claims: Facts of Batterton

Batterton was a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by Dutra Group. While Batterton was working on the vessel in navigable waters, a hatch cover blew open and crushed his left hand. Pressurized air was being pumped into a compartment below the hatch cover, and the vessel lacked an exhaust mechanism to relieve the pressure when it got too high. Batterton and his lawyers claimed that the vessel was unseaworthy because of the lack of a mechanism for exhausting the pressurized air. Batterton sought various damages, including punitive damages, under an unseaworthiness claim and also made other claims. Dutra Group’s attorneys filed a motion to strike the prayer for punitive damages. The trial court denied the motion and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. There were no other issues before the Ninth Circuit. The case was/is remained for further proceedings.

Defending Unseaworthiness Claims: Legal Discussion

In the case of Evich v. Morris, 819 F.2d 256 (9th Cir. 1987), the Ninth Circuit held that punitive damages were available for a claim of unseaworthiness under general maritime law. Evich is thus one of the controlling Ninth Circuit precedents.

When deciding McBride, the Fifth Circuit discussed Evich and held that Evich had been implicitly overruled by the US Supreme court case of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp, 498 U.S. 19 (1990). In Miles, a crew member stabbed a fellow seaman to death. The decedent’s mother brought a Jones Act negligence claim for failure to prevent the deadly assault and a general maritime unseaworthiness claim for hiring an unfit crew member. Among other things, she sought loss of society, lost future income, and punitive damages. The jury found negligence but rejected the unseaworthiness claim. The Fifth Circuit also held that a nondependent parent may not recover for loss of society in a general maritime wrongful death action and that general maritime law does not permit a survival action for decedent’s lost future earnings. The US Supreme Court affirmed each of these holdings.

Note, however, the permissibility of a punitive damages award for an unseaworthiness claim was not before the Fifth Circuit or the US Supreme Court; just the issues with respect to loss of society and of future earnings.

For this reason, the Ninth Circuit in the recent Batterton case held that Miles did not overrule Evich. As such, the Batterton court held that the prayer for punitive damages was proper. The Batterton court made two additional rulings – that nothing in Miles or other Supreme Court precedents limits the availability of punitive damages for any claim made under general maritime law and that there is no logical connection between barring recovery of loss of society and barring recovery of punitive damages. Arguably, Miles completely barred loss of society claims under all statutes and general maritime law. According to the Batterton court, even if true, neither Miles nor logic links loss of society to claims for punitive damages.

Defending Unseaworthiness Claims: Results?

As a practical matter, the defense bar in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana will see an uptick of prayers for punitive damages in maritime cases. Plaintiffs’ attorneys will argue that Batterton provides a good faith basis for reversing existing law — that is, reversing McBride. However, District Courts in Louisiana are bound by McBride for now. As another practical matter, there is now a split between the US Circuit Courts of Appeal that may cause the US Supreme Court to take up the issue.

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

If you need additional information, contact Louisiana defense 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.