Can You Recover Punitive Damages in Asbestos Cases Under the Jones Act?

Can Sailors Seek Punitive Damages in Jones Act Asbestos Cases?
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Last week, a federal judge in Pennsylvania, presiding over a large docket of maritime asbestos-related claims, issued a key ruling favorably impacting sweeping number of plaintiffs’ cases.

Judge Eduardo C. Robreno’s opinion considers three questions: (1) whether punitive damages are available to seamen’s claims for unseaworthiness under general maritime law; (2) if so, whether punitive damages are available in maritime cases for asbestos-related claims; and finally (3) whether the plaintiffs in the case had satisfied the (relatively) new pleadings standard for requesting punitive damages.  

Here are Judge Robreno’s answers to those questions: 

(1)  Punitive Damages in a Seaman’s Claim for Unseawortiness?

Yes, live seamen may be vindicated with punitive damages under an unseaworthiness claim; but all things equal, a dead seaman’s family members cannot be similarly vindicated.  (That is, there are no punitive damages available for survivor’s claims.  While it might seem that the distinction reflects a suggestion to all nefarious tort-feasing vessel owners and operators to “finish the job” so to speak, the awkward distinction merely boils down to the fact that Congress has already limited claims brought by survivors of seamen, but had not similarly limited live seaman’s claims.)  

With respect to the favorable ruling allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims for live seaman, Judge Robreno correctly noted that that neither the Supreme Court nor the Third Circuit has precisely answered this question.  Nevertheless, Judge Robreno interprets the Supreme Court discussion in Atlantic Sounding allowing punitive damages for a seaman’s maintenance and cure claim as sufficiently suggestive of the same result for unseaworthiness claims.   Judge Robreno refers to the majority opinion in the McBride case issued by the Fifth Circuit last winter for authority directly supporting his ruling. (There is no question Judge Robreno knows that Fifth Circuit opinion is not yet set in stone and will be reviewed again by an en banc panel.  I thank Judge Robreno for doing his part to steer that en banc panel in the right direction.)

(2)  Punitive Damages in a Seaman’s Asbestos-Related Claim for Unseawortiness?

Yes, in appropriate cases a seaman’s asbestos-related unseaworthiness claim will merit punitive damages.  However, the Judge Robreno acknowledges that there are some limits to how much punitive damages a seaman can recover and Judge believes that the best starting place is the 1:1 ratio discussed in Baker (Exxon Valdez Case).

(3) Whether the plaintiffs’ punitive damages claims satisfied the federal pleading standard? 

No.  But the judge acknowledged that the plaintiffs’ asbestos cases were old, filed a while back, before the Supreme Court tightened up the federal pleading standard, eg. These cases were filed before Twombly (2007) and Iqbal (2009).  With that in mind, Judge Robreno allowed plaintiffs’ whose pleadings did not comply with the pleading standard leave to amend in conformance with Iqbal in Twombly.   This result stresses the importance of properly drafting punitive damages demand within a claims for unseaworthiness. 

Source: In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation, MDL Docket 875 (E.D. Pa. July 9, 2014). 
Brian Beckcom
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