Asbestos MDL Court Concludes Punitive Damages For Unseaworthiness Allowed For Seaman But Not For A Seaman’s Personal Representative In Survival Actions

In the consolidated asbestos products liability MDL pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the court had the opportunity last week to address significant issues with respect to the maritime cases in the MDL brought by various merchant marines and their representatives, survivors, and spouses.  The court considered whether punitive damages are available to seamen bringing actions based on the general maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness and, if so, would punitive damages be available under maritime law in cases arising from alleged asbestos exposure.

In a lengthy opinion, the court concluded that a seaman can pursue an unseaworthiness claim under general maritime law and, when appropriate, recover punitive damages, but that a seaman’s personal representative cannot recover punitive damages as part of a wrongful death or survival action.

Traditionally, general maritime law provided a seaman with two causes of action against his employer:  1) a claim for “maintenance and cure” if a vessel owner failed to provide food, lodging, and medical services or 2) a claim for unseaworthiness to recover for an injury “suffered as a consequence of the unseaworthiness of the ship or a defect in [its] equipment.”  Theoretically, a seaman could have recovered punitive damages as part of such a claim under the common law.  In 1920, Congress then passed the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), which provided seamen a federal cause of action for employer negligence and allowed recovery by a seaman’s personal representative if the seaman died from his injuries (i.e., a wrongful death claim).  Recovery under those federal statutes, however, was limited to “pecuniary losses,” which are those losses that can be readily assigned a monetary value, which would exclude punitive damages. 

In Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the Jones Act’s bar on recovery for loss of society (a non-pecuniary loss) must also apply in a general maritime wrongful death action and declared it was “restor[ing] a uniform rule applicable to all actions for the wrongful death of a seaman, whether under DOHSA, the Jones Act, or general maritime law.”  In 2009, however, the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend that the Jones Act “did not eliminate preexisting remedies available to seaman,” and concluded that a seaman could recover punitive damages on a general maritime claim for maintenance and cure. 

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania explained last week that even though Atlantic Sounding’s holding is limited to claims for maintenance and cure, its reasoning encompasses unseaworthiness claims as well.  The court explained that although unseaworthiness is a species of strict liability and punitive damages would never be appropriate where the seaman could not show any fault on the part of a shipowner, seaman who could establish willful and wanton conduct on the part of a shipowner should not be barred from claiming punitive damages.  Accordingly, the court ruled that punitive damages can be awarded in unseaworthiness actions, as was the case at common law, without violating the Jones Act. 

The court, however, made a critical distinction, finding that punitive damages are not permitted in wrongful death and survival actions given the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance in Miles.  Previously, the only U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (the Fifth Circuit in McBride v. Estis Well Serv., LLC) to consider the issues presented here failed to make that distinction, arguably in conflict with Miles.  While the MDL court acknowledged that it may seem “anomalous” for an injured seaman to be able to recover punitive damages, yet for the estate of a seaman who is killed to be unable to do so, “that is the result required by Supreme Court precedent.”  The court reasoned that this anomaly existed at common law as survival actions did not predate the Jones Act and that no statute has extended the availability of punitive damages beyond a seaman’s lifetime.

The court proceeded to find that punitive damages were not “off-limits” as a matter of law to seamen bringing claims of unseaworthiness specifically in asbestos cases after a detailed review of commentators’ reasoning for not awarding punitive damages in asbestos exposure cases.

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