In Calvin Howard, et al v. Offshore Liftboats, LLC, No. 13-4811, Judge Susie Morgan of the Eastern District of Louisiana examined the issue of punitive damages under the Jones Act. slip op. (E.D.La. November 20, 2015). In this case, plaintiffs filed suit against their employer alleging negligence under the Jones Act and seeking punitive damages. Plaintiffs also sued a non-employer third party under general maritime law for negligence and unseaworthiness, as well as for punitive damages. Both defendants brought a motion to dismiss the punitive damage claims.
The defendants asserted that the Fifth Circuit in McBride v. Estis Well Services, LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) "expressly precluded awards for punitive damages related to claims arising under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law." The plaintiffs, on the other hand, relied on the Eastern District of Louisiana decision of Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towwing, L.L.C., No. 14-1900, 2015 WL 5254710 (E.D.La. Sept. 9, 2015), which concluded that punitive damages are available under General Maritime Law against a non-employer third party. In Collins, the court relied on the Supreme Court's decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), which held that seaman can recover punitive damages for an employer's arbitrary withholding of maintenance and cure. The Collins court declined to follow the Fifth Circuit's decision in Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, 391 F.3d 660 (5th Cir. 2004), which held that a seaman may not recover punitive damages against either his employer or a non-employer.
Judge Morgan noted that Townsend, as even Collins recognized, is specific to the maintenance-and-cure context and does not address whether punitive damages are available for claims of unseaworthiness. The Townsend Court actually distinguished maintenance and cure from a seaman's remedies for negligence and unseaworthiness, for which punitive damages are generally not available. Judge Morgan also stated that Fifth Circuit decision in Scarborough is binding on the court and has not been overruled. As a result, Judge Morgan held that the plaintiffs had no claims for punitive damages, either against their employer or the non-employer third party.