State Supreme Court ruling in US affects damages claims

Keesal, Young & Logan Maritime Law Group have informed North P&I that, in a unanimous ruling on March 9th, the Washington State Supreme Court held that seamen can recover punitive damages as part of a unseaworthiness claim under general maritime law. The Court relied on the US Supreme Court’s opinion in Atl. Sounding Co v Townsend to hold that punitive damages are broadly available in general maritime law claims.

Finding no indication that unseaworthiness claims were excluded from this general rule, the Court reasoned that punitive damages are available for unseaworthiness claims. Although the Court considered the restriction on damages recoverable in seamen’s actions as identified by the US Supreme Court in Miles v Apex Marine Corp, the Washington Court ultimately determined that the reasoning in Miles did not apply because that decision was limited to wrongful death actions. The Court’s decision was heavily guided by the special protection afforded to seamen who have been historically considered wards of admiralty.

The Supreme Court decision related to Tabingo v American Triumph LLC: Tabingo was a fishing trawler deckhand trainee. After deckhands have shovelled the fish through the open hatch, a deckhand gets on all fours to remove the final fish off the deck. Tabingo was on his knees gathering the fish when another deckhand started closing the hatch. The deckhand noticed that Tabingo’s hand was near the hatch, but the hatch’s hydraulic control was broken so he could not stop the hatch from closing. It closed on Tabingo’s hand, severing two of his fingers. Tabingo alleged that the vessel operator had known about the broken control handle for two years before the incident yet failed to repair it.

Tabingo asserted Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims, seeking compensatory damages for all of his claims and punitive damages for his unseaworthiness claim.

The lower trial court ruled that the Jones Act circumscribed the damages available under an unseaworthiness claim and dismissed the punitive damages claim. The Washington Supreme Court noted that the general maritime law claim for unseaworthiness had a long history that predated Congress’s enactment of the Jones Act negligence claim. The two claims remained as independent causes of action.

The State Supreme Court also found that neither the US Supreme Court nor the Washington Supreme Court has ruled on whether punitive damages are available under a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim. In the absence of precedent, the Court relied heavily on US Supreme Court 2009 case Atl Sounding v Townsend from, which found that punitive damages were available under general maritime law where a seaman’s employer wilfully disregards its maintenance and cure obligation. The court noted that punitive damages had historically been available at common law and those common law damages extended to general maritime law.

The court found that the longstanding policy of treating seamen with particular care would be advanced by allowing recovery of punitive damages for injuries caused by

“reckless to malicious conduct.” An award of punitive damages would also serve as an example to other vessel operators. The legal firm observed that the Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling would be binding precedent only in state courts in Washington. “Nevertheless, claimants will rely on today’s ruling as persuasive authority in federal and state courts around the country.”

The higher court found punitive damages may be warranted where the defendant’s conduct was “reckless,” which in the scale of culpability is less egregious than wilful, malicious or intentional. “Thus, vessel owners can expect to see plaintiffs routinely alleging reckless conduct to support a punitive damages claim when in reality the claim involves simple negligence, or less”, said Keesal, Young & Logan.

The lawyers continued that plaintiffs’ attorneys would likely “be emboldened to take unreasonable positions during settlement negotiations, at least in Washington. We expect they will attempt to exploit the availability of punitive damages by creating tension between vessel owners and their insurers, because punitive damages are generally not covered by insurance.”