Clark Martin Law Firm

No Punitive Damages Allowed in Maritime Lawsuit

The Fifth Circuit has ruled in a split en banc decision that survivors of a worker killed in a barge-mounted drilling rig accident cannot collect punitive damages under general maritime law. The majority, in reversing an earlier panel decision, ruled that it doesn’t matter if the claim is for personal injury or wrongful death. In a 9-6 decision, the appeals court’s majority cited and relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., which limits a seaman’s recovery to pecuniary losses where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or unseaworthiness. The majority opinion said punitive damages are by definition “non-pecuniary losses,” and thus are not recoverable.

Estis Well Service LLC had asked the appeals court to grant an en banc rehearing on the earlier ruling that the heirs of Skye Sonnier, the decedent, could assert claims for punitive damages in personal injury or wrongful death cases alleging unseaworthiness under general maritime law. The 30-year-old worker, Sonnier, was killed in 2011 when a derrick toppled over on barge in Louisiana. Other workers injured in the accident have also sued, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

The Plaintiffs contended the Miles decision only applies to wrongful death claims. But the majority rejected that argument, finding there is “no meaningful distinction” between a wrongful death action and a personal injury action in such cases. U.S. Circuit Judge W. Eugene Davis wrote for the majority, saying:

On the subject of recoverable damages in a wrongful death case under the Jones Act and the general maritime law, [Congress] has limited the survivor’s recovery to pecuniary losses. Appellants have suggested no reason this holding and analysis would not apply equally to the plaintiffs asserting claims for personal injury.

The majority said, based on Miles and other Supreme Court and circuit authority, that pecuniary losses are designed to compensate an injured person or his survivors, whereas punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer rather than compensate the victim. That, according to the majority opinion, automatically rendered them non-pecuniary and therefore excluded under the Jones Act. The law, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, protects American workers injured at sea.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2009 in a case, Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, that punitive damages are available for arbitrary and capricious denial of maintenance and cure. That, according to the court, was because this remedy had been available prior to the passage of the Jones Act in 1920. But the plaintiffs failed to convince the Fifth Circuit majority that it meant they could recover punitive damages based on “a claim of unseaworthiness.” In a concurring opinion, Judge Edith Brown Clement said despite the Townsend ruling that punitive damages are available in maintenance and cure cases, the court cannot “blithely assume that because they are available in a wholly different type of maritime action that pre-dates the Magna Carta,” that they are available now.

Judge Clement wrote that: “If Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. stands for anything, it at the very least signals that all damages are not automatically available in all maritime cases.” Judge Stephen A. Higginson, joined by five other members of the court, dissented from the majority opinion, saying that punitive damages should be available in all cases. Judge Higginson said Congress did disallow punitive damages for the Jones Act, but that conclusion should not be binding with regards to an unrelated unseaworthiness claim. The dissenting judges also stated that the Miles decision is limited to wrongful death claims and that personal injury claimants should be allowed to recover broader damages. Judge Higginson wrote in the dissent:

Like maintenance and cure, unseaworthiness was established as a general maritime claim before the passage of the Jones Act, punitive damages were available under general maritime law, and the Jones Act does not address unseaworthiness or limit its remedies.

The Plaintiff plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the en banc decision. It was alleged by the Plaintiff that the accident occurred as the result of “countless” safety violations and a barge that was in such “deplorable” condition that the employer cut it up and sold it for scrap immediately after the incident. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will accept this case and reversing the 5th Circuit ruling on punitive damages. (Source:

Clark Martin is experienced in handling maritime lawsuits. Having worked in the industry, Clark is familiar with both the work and the specialized area of law. If you or a loved one has been injured in a maritime accident, contact Clark Martin for your free consultation today.