The Jones Act Does Not Cover Punitive Damages

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States upheld the verdict reached by the Western District of Louisiana in the McBride v. Estis Well Service LLC case, which stated that Jones Act attorneys may not seek punitive damages in cases determined by the Jones Act. The only recovery available to a seaman is for actual financial losses incurred due to the unseaworthiness of a vessel or drilling platform. The case was based on an accident that happened on Estis Rig 23, which was a barge containing a truck-mounted drilling rig in the Louisiana navigable waterway Bayou Sorrell. The truck fell over and killed Skye Sonnier. Crewmembers Saul Tochet, Brian Suire and Joshua Bourque were injured in the accident. Offshore injury lawyer Haleigh McBride filed a case for Sonnier’s minor child claiming the rig was not seaworthy according to maritime law and that Estis Well Service LLC was negligent under the Jones Act. The action sought compensation and punitive damages from Estis, who owned and ran the rig and employed all four crewmembers. The injured crewmembers filed similar suits against Estis. When the cases were combined, maritime lawyers representing Estis sought to have the claims dismissed because punitive damages are not available in cases based on unseaworthiness or Jones Act negligence. The motion to dismiss was granted by the District Court, which disregarded the punitive damage claims. In the appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to determine if the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. was valid and would be a precedent for the case against Estis. The Supreme Court decided that compensation was confined to pecuniary losses under general maritime law and the Jones Act. The crewmembers’ attorney claimed that in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the Supreme Court heard a seaman’s claim for punitive fines because the employer did not keep the equipment safely maintained. The court also held that the reasoning behind the decision in Miles was legally sound, and the Townsend case was clearly different. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals also decided that the Supreme Court’s application of general maritime law and the Jones Act in particular in the Miles case were based on good law and could be applied to the wrongful death and personal injury case brought by the crewmembers of the Estis rig. It also held that pecuniary loss compensation is meant to make the plaintiff whole and that punitive damages were designed to punish the defendant for gross misconduct. The ruling meant that punitive damages do not fall under the category of financial losses and are not allowed under an unseaworthiness case based on general maritime law. Furthermore, there had been no other claims in which punitive damages were found to be pecuniary. For those reasons, punitive damages were deemed unrecoverable in the wrongful death and personal injury cases brought by the Estis crewmembers under general maritime law and the Jones Act. Six judges dissented. Circuit judges Stewart, Dennis, Barksdale, Prado, Graves and Higginson maintained that since punitive damages were obtainable under general maritime law prior to the passing of the Jones Act and since the Jones Act does not deal with unseaworthiness and does not limit its remedies, the option to sue for punitive damages should be available until Congress passes legislation stating that punitive damages should no longer be applicable under the Jones Act. Clearly, the Jones Act has had ramifications that were unforeseen when it was passed. Until Congress acts, however, the federal district courts will be making decisions based on the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. case.