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Maritime Law--En Banc 5th Circuit Rules Punitive Damages NOT Allowed in Jones Act Cases

In the long awaited en banc decision of McBride v. Estes Well Services, LLC, No. 12-30714 (Sept. 25, 2014), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had to decide whether seaman plaintiffs, two injured seamen and the personal representative of a deceased seaman, could recover punitive damages under either the Jones Act or the general maritime law of the United States. The en banc Court affirmed the district court and concluded that the case was controlled by the SCOTUS decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., which holds that the Jones Act limits a seaman's recovery to pecuniary losses where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or unseaworthiness. Because punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses, punitive damages were not recoverable in the case.
The 73-page decision is interesting, as there are two separate concurring opinions for the 8 judges in the majority and two separate dissenting opinions by 6 judges. Care was taken in this decision, as several circuits hold that the Miles proscription on non-pecuniary damages applies. However, the broad holding of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 2009 AMC 1521 (2009), held that the proscription against awards of non-pecuniary damages recognized in Miles does not apply to actions brought under the general maritime law. The first Fifth Circuit panel in McBride, citing Atlantic Sounding, held that the general maritime law allows awards of punitive damages outside of the context of the Jones Act and Death of the High Seas Act.

In the death action, the en banc majority found that the facts in McBride were indistinguishable from the facts in Miles.  Therefore, as Miles limited survivor damages to their pecuniary losses, the personal representative of the deceased seaman was equally limited to pecuniary losses. Quickly turning to the injury plaintiffs, the Court pointed out that the Jones Act applied to injured seaman as well as those killed through the negligence of their employer. The Court further noted that "no one has suggested why [the Miles] holding would not apply to an injury case such as those asserted by [the injury plaintiffs]."
In addressing Atlantic Sounding, the Court noted that SCOTUS did not overrule Miles and "took pains to distinguish" maintenance and cure claims from the claims in Miles and equally, the case before the Court.

Given this latest decision and the inconsistent construction of the proscription against non-pecuniary damages in Miles, watch this space--this case will attempt to make its way to the Supremes.
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