Recently, in Wade v. Clemco Industries, Corp., et al, No. 16-502 (E.D.La. Feb. 2, 2017). the court considered whether a seaman can recover non-pecuniary damages against a non-employer third-party tortfeasor under general maritime law.
Plaintiff, Rose Wade was the widow of Garland Wade, who died of exposure to silica dust, which resulted in silicosis and eventually Connective Tissues Cancer. Plaintiff filed suit against Clemco Industries Corp., Mississippi Valley Silica Company, Lamorak Insurance company, and Chevron U.S.A. on the grounds that Defendants designed, marketed, manufactured, distributed or sold negligently-designed and manufactured products, exposing the decedent to asbestos fibers which proximately and directly caused or aggravated his illness and death. Defendants filed motions for summary judgment seeking to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages under general maritime law.
The court noted that the Supreme Court in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., held that a seaman cannot recover non-pecuniary damages from his Jones Act employer either under a Jones Act negligence claim or under a general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness. The Supreme Court then clarified this rule in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, where it held that punitive damages were available under general maritime law for an employer’s willful and wanton disregard it of maintenance and cure obligations. Thereafter, it was unclear whether punitive damages were recoverable under general maritime law for non-maintenance and cure claims or where limited only to maintenance and cure claims. The Fifth Circuit, however, in McBride v. Estis Wll Serv., LLC, concluded that Townsend was limited to maintenance and cure claims only and determined that neither a seaman, nor their survivor, can recover punitive damages for personal injury or wrongful death claims based on either the Jones Act or general maritime law.
In Collins v. AB C. Marine Towing, L.L.C., the Eastern District of Louisiana noted that neither Miles nor McBride addressed an action by a seaman against a non-employer third party tortfeasor. However, because the Plaintiff elected to bring her claim under general maritime law, she was bound by any limitations on damages that exist under that body of law. Since McBride, it has become clear that in wrongful death cases brought under general maritime law, a survivor’s recovery from employers and non-employers is limited to pecuniary losses. This is supported by the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, which held a seaman may not recover punitive damages against either his employer or non-employer third party. As a result, the court held that the Plaintiff’s claims for non-pecuniary damages were not permitted and dismissed these claims.