The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that the victims in a drilling rig accident on a Louisiana waterway may seek “punitive” damages in their lawsuit against the company. The accident resulted in the death of one seaman and injuries to three others.
Because the accident occurred on a barge on a navigable waterway (Bayou Sorrell), the matter is covered by maritime law.
While the lower court agreed with the company’s argument that this particular claim for damages is not available under statutory maritime law, the federal appeals court ruled that punitive damages were available – in relation to unseaworthiness – prior to the passage of the relevant legislation.
The accident occurred on a barge supporting a drilling rig mounted on a truck. As the judgment of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals explains, crew members were performing maintenance activities when the rig and truck toppled over. One seaman was killed and three others were injured.
The resulting lawsuits against the drilling company – which were consolidated into McBride v. Estis Well Service -claimed that the vessel was unseaworthy and sought “punitive” damages (as well as other remedies). However, the judge in the original court proceedings dismissed this aspect of the lawsuit.
A commentary on the case in the Louisiana Record (an online legal journal) identifies the main issue in the appeal as “whether seamen may recover punitive damages for their employer’s willful and wanton breach of general maritime law duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.”
After a careful review of the historical development of maritime law in the United States, the federal appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled that punitive damages are available in this set of circumstances.
The judges explain that the relevant statutory laws passed in the twentieth century (primarily the “Jones Act”) were not intended to limit the legal options previously available to injured parties under maritime law.
An article on McBride v. Estis Well Service in the online journal of the Louisiana State Bar Association explains that the appeals court ruled in favor of the victims because “unseaworthiness was established as a general maritime claim before the passage of the Jones Act.”
Anyone injured in an incident on Louisiana’s waterways should contact a personal injury attorney with expertise in the area of maritime law. A lawyer with relevant experience can provide timely advice and vigorous representation tailored to this specialized legal field.