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Maritime Law: Recent Case Confirms No Non-Pecuniary Damages Under Jones Act

In recent developments in admiralty law under the Jones Act, a Louisiana federal judge threw out a request for non-pecuniary damages made by a seaman and his family when he was injured while working on a tugboat. See Melancon v. Gaubert Oil Company, Inc., Civil Action No. 17-2905 (US Fed. E.D. Louisiana 2017).

Jones Act and Limits on Non-Pecuniary Damages

The US Supreme Court held in the case of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), that survivors of a Jones Act seaman are precluded from recovering non-pecuniary damages.

Non-pecuniary damages are:

  • Punitive damages
  • Loss of society
  • Loss of consortium
  • Pain and suffering
  • Lost future earnings
  • Impairment of life

Here in Louisiana, the federal Appeals Court for the Fifth Circuit extended Miles to include both injured seamen and those killed through the negligence of their employer. See McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014). The court held that Miles would apply to two causes of action – those filed under the Jones Act and those predicated on unseaworthiness under general maritime law. Accordingly, the McBride court held that punitive damages are in the “forbidden” category of non-pecuniary damages and are, therefore, not recoverable.

Other Fifth Circuit cases have made it clear that the principles of Miles apply to non-employers too. Thus, neither a Jones Act seaman nor his/her survivors can recover non-pecuniary losses from a non-employer. Scarborough v. Clemco Indus., 391 F.3d 660 (5th Cir. 2004).

Facts of Case: Melancon v. Gaubert Oil Company, Inc.

In August 2017, the principles established in Miles and McBride were extended in the case of Melancon v. Gaubert Oil Company. There, the plaintiff, Dwayne Melancon, was working as a tankerman onboard a tugboat that collided with a rock barge. As a result, he fell down a stairwell on the tugboat and was injured. Melancon claims that the collision was the result of steering failure, machinery or equipment failure, and electrical failure. He sued his employer and the third-party owner of the tugboat.

Melancon sought to recover various pecuniary damages and also punitive damages. He argued that Miles did not apply, but rather that the court should apply the US Supreme Court case of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009). In Townsend, the Supreme Court held that a seaman could recover punitive damages for an employer’s willful and wanton failure to honor its maintenance and cure obligations. The Townsend case distinguished a maintenance and cure cause of action from a negligence/wrongful death cause of action under the Jones Act and a negligence/wrongful death cause of action under general maritime law. Townsend did not overrule Miles. They apply to two different causes of action.

The Melancon court applied the Miles case and dismissed the plaintiff’s request for punitive damages. His case was filed under the Jones Act and there were no allegations of willful and wanton conduct.

Melancon’s wife and children sought pecuniary damages and damages for loss of consortium, love and affection, and services. Those too were dismissed. Survivors of seamen killed have no claim for non-pecuniary damages. The court saw no reason to treat the family of injured seamen differently than the family of deceased seamen.

Contact an Experienced Louisiana Defense Lawyer

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.