Washington State Supreme Court Rules Punitive Damages are Available in Seamen’s General Maritime Law Claim for Unseaworthiness
In a unanimous ruling today, the Washington State Supreme Court held that seamen may recover punitive damages in an unseaworthiness claim under general maritime law. The Court relied on the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Facts and lower court ruling in Tabingo v. American Triumph LLC:
Tabingo was a deckhand trainee aboard a fishing trawler, a vessel that catches and hauls fish onto its deck using large nets. Once the fish are on the deck, a hatch is opened and deckhands shovel the fish through the hatch for processing. To remove the final fish off the deck, a deckhand gets on all-fours and uses their hands to place the remaining fish in the hatch. 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 filed suit against the vessel operator. He asserted Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims. General maritime law is a body of common law developed over time by the courts. He sought compensatory damages for all of his claims and punitive damages for his unseaworthiness claim.
The trial court ruled that under Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., the Jones Act circumscribes the damages available under an unseaworthiness claim and dismissed the punitive damages claim. The Washington State Supreme Court accepted direct review.
The Washington Supreme Court’s Analysis:
The Court began its analysis by noting that the general maritime law claim for unseaworthiness has a long history that predates Congress’s enactment of the Jones Act negligence claim. The two claims remain independent causes of action. The Court also found that neither the United States 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 any such precedent, the Court relied heavily on Atl. Sounding Co. v Townsend, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision that found punitive damages are available under general maritime law where a seaman’s employer willfully disregards its maintenance and cure obligation. Three points were central to the Townsend court’s decision: (1) the pre-existing availability of punitive damages under common law; (2) the tradition of extending punitive damages to maritime claims; and (3) the intent (or lack thereof) to exclude punitive damages for a particular maritime claim.
The Washington Supreme Court concluded that all three factors support the availability of punitive damages in a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim. Punitive damages have historically been available at common law and those common law damages extend to general maritime law. Moreover, the Court read Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. as applying only to wrongful death actions, so the Court did not find any intent to exclude punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims relating to injuries. The Court also distinguished McBride v. Estis Well Service, an en banc Fifth Circuit decision that held punitive damages were unavailable for an unseaworthiness claim, by insisting that the McBride court misinterpreted both Miles and Townsend.
Finally, 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 Potential Impact of the Ruling:
The Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling is 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.
Notably, the Court found punitive damages may be warranted where the defendant’s conduct was “reckless,” which in the scale of culpability is less egregious than willful, 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. And, due to the fact issues involved in determining the level of culpability, it may be difficult to prevail on summary judgment on the punitive damages issue.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys will 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.
This information has been prepared by Keesal, Young & Logan for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Transmission of the information is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between you and Keesal, Young & Logan. You should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.