Appeals court hears case about punitive damages in maritime law

Oct 20, 2023 by Dodson & Hooks, APLC

The law has long recognized how dangerous it is to work in the maritime industry. Maritime law has protections for seamen to ensure that they receive compensation in the event they get injured. In October 2013, a Louisiana appellate court issued a decision that helps protect the rights of injured seamen to seek punitive damages against employers who do not meet their responsibility to provide seaworthy vessels for their employees.

Seamen injured on barge

Four seamen working on a barge that supported an oil drilling rig in navigable water in Louisiana brought suit against the owner of the barge after they suffered injuries while working on the barge. The seamen were straightening a catwalk that extended out from a derrick. The derrick pipe shifted, and the derrick and a tank tumbled over. One of the seamen was pinned between the derrick and the mud tank, and he ended up dying from his injuries. The three others working with him suffered less severe injuries.

Debate on damages

The seamen stated that their cause of action was based upon unseaworthiness under general maritime law and negligence under the Jones Act. They sought both compensatory and punitive damages from the barge owner. The barge owner moved to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, arguing that neither negligence claims under the Jones Act nor unseaworthiness claims allowed for punitive damages as a remedy as a matter of law. The trial court granted the barge owner’s motion to dismiss the claims for punitive damages, but also agreed to certify the question immediately to the appellate court given that there was no clear consensus on the issue.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the claim for punitive damages and remanded the case back to the trial court. The appellate court reasoned that if a cause of action and a remedy existed in general maritime law prior to the passage of the Jones Act, and the Act did not specifically address the cause of action and remedy, then seamen were still free to pursue the cause of action and remedy. In this case, the court noted, both a claim for unseaworthiness and punitive damages were available under general maritime law prior to the Jones Act. The Jones Act does not discuss unseaworthiness claims, nor does it limit the remedies available for such claims. As such, the court reasoned, seamen may seek punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims.

Talk to a lawyer

While laws protect seamen who are injured on the job, navigating those laws can be very complicated. Bringing a claim for an injury suffered while working on a ship requires the assistance of an attorney with a thorough understanding of the complex body of law dealing with maritime workers’ injuries. If you have been injured while working on a boat or ship, speak with a skilled maritime lawyer who can help you obtain the compensation you need to recover.

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