A Watery Grave for Unseaworthiness Punitive Damages: McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C.

Author:Phillip M. Smith
Position:J.D./D.C.L., 2016, Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University.
Pages:619-659
 
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A Watery Grave for Unseaworthiness Punitive
Damages: McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction .................................................................................. 620
I. The Role of Congress and the Courts in Calming the
Stormy Seas .................................................................................. 622
A. The Scope of Admiralty Jurisdiction ..................................... 622
B. The Remedies Available to the Wards of Admiralty ............. 624
1. Maintenance and Cure ..................................................... 625
2. Unseaworthiness .............................................................. 626
3. Negligence: The Jones Act .............................................. 628
II. McBride and Maritime Punitive Damages for Seamen ................ 629
A. The Case: McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C. ................... 629
1. Facts and Procedural History ........................................... 629
2. The Fifth Circuit’s Decision ............................................ 630
B. The Long, Stormy Voyage of Maritime Punitive
Damages ................................................................................. 632
1. The Availability of Punitive Damages to Seamen
Before the Jones Act ........................................................ 633
2. The Analogy to Loss of Society Damages After the
Jones Act ......................................................................... 635
3. The Default Rule: Punitive Damages are Available
under General Maritime Law .......................................... 638
4. The Court’s Maiden Voyage into Punitive Damages
for Seamen ....................................................................... 638
III. Unseaworthiness Punitive Damages Should Remain
Unavailable ................................................................................... 640
A. Townsend Does Not Control Unseaworthiness ...................... 641
1. No Punitive Damages Awarded to Seamen Prior
to the Jones Act ............................................................... 641
2. Maintenance and Cure is a Separate and Independent
Claim from Unseaworthiness .......................................... 644
3. No Sound Reasoning for Unseaworthiness Punitive
Damages After the Jones Act .......................................... 646
B. The Unavailability of Jones Act Punitive Damages
Extends to Unseaworthiness .................................................. 647
1. Punitive Damages Are Not Available Under the
Jones Act ......................................................................... 648
620 LOUISIANA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 76
2. The Jones Act and Unseaworthiness are Intimately
Limited to One Indemnity ............................................... 650
3. Sailing in the Occupied the Waters of Congressional
Action .............................................................................. 652
C. No Distinction Should Exist Between Personal Injury and
Wrongful Death ...................................................................... 654
1. No Distinction Under the Jones Act ................................ 655
2. No Distinction Under the Miles Uniformity Principle .... 656
D. The Fifth Circuit Sets the Right Course for
Unseaworthiness Punitive Damages ...................................... 657
Conclusion .................................................................................... 658
INTRODUCTION
Life on the high seas was not easy for seamen, as this life involved
cruel treatment by masters and a lack of regulation.1 Historically, this class
of maritime workers has been entitled to special judicial protections as the
wards of admiralty.2 Although admiralty courts understandably became a
shield for these workers in turbulent times, a seaman today is no longer
thrown into the same rough waters. Congress has legislated extensively in
the area of maritime tort remedies,3 and employers have responded by
making worker safety a major goal of the maritime shipping industry.4
Consequently, courts should no longer use the rocky waters of the past as
justification to expand claims and remedies when the seas are much
calmer.
One remedy that courts have recently expanded is the availability of
punitive damages to seamen.5 In Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend,6
the United States Supreme Court held that seamen were entitled under
general maritime law to recover punitive damages for their employer’s
intentional failure to pay maintenance and cure—a remedy that includes
medical and living expenses arising out of an accident or illness that occurs
during the seaman’s employment.7 The Court based its decision on the
Copyright 2015, by PHILLIP M. SMITH.
1. S ee infra Part II.B.1.
2. See Atl. Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 417 (2009).
3. See Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 27 (1990).
4. See generally Stanley A. Millan & Patrick J. Veters, Deck the Hulls with
OSHA, 2 LOY. MAR. L.J. 44 (2003) (discussing the dual regulatory authority of the
United States Coast Guard and the Occupational Sa fety and Health Administration
in the field of maritime worker safety).
5. To wnsend, 557 U.S. at 424.
6. 557 U.S. 404.
7. Id. at 424.
2015] NOTE 621
alleged historic availability of such damages and the absence of statutory
preemption.8 It is unclear whether the reasoning of this decision extends
to allow recovery of punitive damages for unseaworthiness—the general
maritime-law duty imposed on a shipowner to provide a seaworthy vessel.9
Recently, in McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C.,10 the United States Fifth
Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, held that unseaworthiness punitive
damages are unavailable.11 The Supreme Court denied the plaintiff’s petition
for a writ of certiorari, ensuring that the availability of unseaworthiness
punitive damages and the scope of the Court’s reasoning in Townsend will
remain unsettled outside the Fifth Circuit.12 As district courts in other circuits
have allowed punitive recovery for unseaworthiness, the Court should resolve
this important issue and establish uniformity throughout the country.13
Otherwise, the scattered availability of unseaworthiness punitive damages
will have a detrimental impact on maritime shipping, an industry that is
responsible for transporting the majority of the world’s goods.14
In McBride, the Fifth Circuit correctly concluded that unseaworthiness
punitive damages should not be available to seamen for three reasons.15
First, the reasoning of Townsend does not extend to unseaworthiness,
because no significant history of unseaworthiness punitive damages exists,
and the failure to pay maintenance and cure is a fundamentally different
legal claim.16 Second, the unavailability of punitive damages under the
Jones Act17—a statutory negligence action for seamen—should be
extended to unseaworthiness because the two claims typically involve a
8. Id. at 424–25.
9. Compare Snyder v. L & M Botruc Rental, Inc., 924 F. Supp. 2d 728, 737
(E.D. La. 2013) (holding that unseaworthiness punitive damages are unavailable
under general mariti me law), with Wagner v. Kona Blue Water Farms, L LC, 2010
A.M.C. 2469, 2483 (D. Haw. 2010) (holding that unseaworthiness punitive
damages are available under general maritime law).
10. 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc).
11. Id. at 384 (holding that Miles controlled their decision).
12. McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 135 S. Ct. 2310 (2015).
13. Compare Snyder, 924 F. Supp. 2d at 737, with Wagner, 2010 A.M.C. at
2483.
14. See McB ride, 768 F.3d at 401 (Clement, J., concurring) (“Given the
sizeable percentages of the world’s goods that travel on ships, and the fact that the
prices of the remainder of the world’s goods are indirectly influenced by the prices
of the goods that do travel on ships (e.g., oil prices ultimately affect the price of a
vast range of items), the decision in this case needs to have only the minutest
impact on shipping prices to have a significant aggregate cost for consumers. In
light of the potentially sizable impact, this court should not venture too far and
too fast in these largely uncharted waters without a clear signal from Congress.”).
15. Id. at 384.
16. See in fra Part III.A.
17. 46 U.S.C. § 30104 (2012).

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