Unseaworthiness, Punitive Damages, & Injured Workers

Punitive damages: it’s a commonly-seen term in legal documents, and yet the effect it can have on different cases is wide-ranging and dependent on a number of factors.

These damages set themselves apart from typical damages sought during an injury case by focusing more on the defendant than the plaintiff; as defined by the Farlex Legal Dictionary, punitive damages are “monetary compensation awarded to an injured party that goes beyond that which is necessary to compensate the individual for losses and that is intended to punish the wrongdoer”. Whereas maintenance and cure damages seek to reimburse the injured party for expenses such as medical bills and lost wages, punitive damages are aimed at punishing the defendant for negligent or harmful behavior above and beyond reimbursing expenses, similar to what you would see in a civil trial.

While they may be a more common sight in many injury or wrongdoing trials, their usage in maritime law cases has been conflicted through the years. Over the past few decades, many rulings from judges (such as this one from Judge Eldon E. Fallon of New Orleans) have produced a ruling that while the Jones Act can provide maintenance and cure for sustained injuries, it does not provide a route to seek punitive damages as those were considered to be outside the scope of the Jones Act.

However, a few recent cases have begun to expand the Jones Act to allow injured workers to seek punitive damages in cases of more extreme carelessness on their employer’s behalf. A case in 2009, Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, ruled that injured maritime workers can seek punitive damages when it is determined that their employer willfully and recklessly withheld maintenance and cure payments or fails to provide them in a timely fashion. Later, in 2017, the case Tabingo v. Am. Triumph LLC became the first case in U.S. history where a State Supreme Court (Washington, in this case) has ruled that an injured worker could seek punitive damages for the unseaworthy conditions of a vessel in motion that cause injury if cause exists to believe that the shipowners caused the conditions through willful neglect and recklessness.

What does this mean for maritime workers? It means you may have a new avenue to seek financial compensation in the event of injury or illness onboard a vessel, so long as there is sufficient cause to believe that the shipowners caused the unseaworthy conditions through negligence, carelessness, or recklessness in the face of worker safety. While the money can’t help bring back lost limbs or lost lives, it could potentially provide an extra financial cushion for workers whose lives and livelihoods have been irreparably changed by an accident that could have been prevented.

And maybe, just maybe, it’ll be another reason for shipowners to think twice about leaving those needed repairs for another day.

If you’ve been injured by an unseaworthy vessel and want to know what your options for defending your rights may be, talk to the maritime lawyers of O’Bryan Law today.