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Virginia Court Rules No Punitive Damages Available Under LHWCA



In Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Minton, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed and remanded a decision of a jury on January 10, 2013, holding that the award of $12.5 million in punitive damages was inappropriately granted because punitive damages are a remedy prohibited by the terms of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act ("LHWCA").

Rubert Minton suffered injuries as a result of developing mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos while working on Exxon Mobile Corporation ("Exxon") ships during his employment at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company (Shipyard). Minton filed suit against Exxon under the federal LHWCA for failure to warn Minton of, and protect him from, the dangers associated with asbestos. The jury found in favor of Minton and awarded him compensatory damages, medical expenses, and punitive damages. Exxon appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court.First, the Supreme Court upheld the jury in finding that the evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that both the active control duty and the duty to intervene under the LHWCA had been breached by Exxon. Second, the Supreme Court disagreed with Exxon in arguing that Minton did not prove causation, as the Court found that there was sufficient evidence for a reasonably jury to find that Exxon's actions were a substantial contributing factor in causing Minton's injury.

Amongst other attacks on the trial court's rulings, Exxon finally argued that the ruling on punitive damages was error, as 33 U.S.C. section 905(b) states that suing a vessel owner for negligence is "exclusive of all other remedies against the vessel owner." The Court noted that other courts have held that punitive damages are indeed available under the LHWCA. However, the Court rejected these findings by reading the plain language of the statute which states: "The remedy provided in this subsection shall be exclusive of all other remedies against the vessel except remedies available under this chapter." The Court found that because the statute does not specifically provide that punitive damages are available under the statute, the Court cannot read the general maritime law into the statute which provides for punitive damages into the statute.

A copy of this decision can be found here => http://law.justia.com/cases/virginia/supreme-court/2013/111775.html. If you have any questions regarding this decision or wish to reach me, you may do so by writing to me at mov@chaloslaw.com.

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