Appeals court reverses and remands decision regarding punitive damages under maritime law

By Eliza Walker | Oct 7, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded district court’s decision involving maritime law and the question of unseaworthiness.

The underlying incident in question occurred aboard Estis Rig 23, a barge supporting a truck-mounted drilling rig operating in Bayou Sorrel, a navigable waterway in Iberville Parish. An accident occurred when crew members were attempting to straighten the catwalk that had twisted the previous night and the derrick pipe shifted, causing the rig and truck to topple over, court papers say.

One crew member, Skye Sonnier, was fatally pinned down, and three others filed suit over their injuries.

The plaintiffs' cases were consolidated into a single action.

The principle question was whether seamen may recover punitive damages for their employer’s willful and wanton breach of general maritime law duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.

Estis moved to dismiss the claims for punitive damages, arguing that they are not an available remedy for unseaworthiness or Jones Act negligence as a matter of law.

The crux of this dispute was the parties’ competing theories of statutory displacement of general maritime law. The appeals court reviewed numerous historical cases, and ruled that unseaworthiness was established as a general maritime claim before the passage of the Jones Act, and punitive damages were, and are, available under general maritime law. The Jones Act, they ruled, does not address seaworthiness or limit its remedies.

The appeals court reversed the decision, and sent the case back to district court for further proceedings.

The case was heard by Chief Judge Carl E. Stewart and Judges Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale and Stephen A. Higginson of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Case no. 12-30714.

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