Punitive Damages Explained for Maritime Claims

What are Punitive Damages?

When an individual is injured in an accident, a judge or jury in a civil lawsuit may award damages above and beyond what is needed to compensate the injured victim for his or her losses. These damages are called “punitive damages” and they are intended to punish the defendant for conduct that is outrageous or extreme, rather than to compensate an individual for his or her injuries. Punitive damage awards are also meant to send a strong message to society that conduct or behavior similar to the defendants’ is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Punitive damage awards are often highly controversial and the potential amount of any award will depend upon the state in which you file your claim. For instance, in some states plaintiffs can receive multi-million dollar awards. In other states, punitive damage awards are subject to “punitive damage caps” which place a strict limit on the amount of money the injured party can be awarded. If you have been injured, it is very important to contact an experienced injury lawyer who can review your accident to determine whether punitive damages may be applicable in your case.

Can I Recover Punitive Damages From My Employer Under the Jones Act?

If you are considered to be a seaman under the Jones Act and you are injured in the course or scope of your employment, you will be entitled to collect punitive damages from your employer if your employer fails to provide you with maintenance and cure benefits.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), held that punitive damages are available to an injured seaman if the seaman’s employer willfully or wantonly refuses to make any maintenance and cure payments, delays payments, fails to pay the proper amount, or terminate these benefits without good cause. This means if your employer withholds the maintenance and cure benefits you are owed and a court determines that your employer’s actions were improper and lacked justification, your employer will have to pay you punitive damages.

Can I Recover Punitive Damages in an Unseaworthiness or Negligence Claim?

The law is somewhat unsettled as to whether punitive damages may be recovered by a seaman in a negligence or unseaworthiness claim. In a very close decision, the majority of the Fifth Circuit in McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC , (Case 12-30714), concluded that punitive damages may not be awarded to a seaman in an unseaworthiness claim. In reaching its decision the court looked to earlier cases which had held that punitive damages could not be recovered in an unseaworthiness claim under general maritime law because recoveries in these types of claims are limited to pecuniary losses and punitive damages are nonpecuniary.

However, the dissenting judges in the McBride case reached a different conclusion, arguing that punitive damages are allowed to personal injury claimants in unseaworthiness cases. While the Fifth Circuit has ruled on this issue, the determination as to whether punitive damages are available to seaman in negligence or unseaworthiness claims may ultimately be taken before the U.S. Supreme Court. If you are a seaman or crewmember who has been injured in a maritime accident, it is best to speak with an experienced lawyer who will review your situation and advise you on what kinds of damages may be available in your case.

Do You Have More Questions? A Maritime Lawyer Can Help

If you have questions about punitive damages, or your maritime accident, in general, we can help. For over 40 years injury victims across the nation have been turning to Willis Law Firm. Seaman and other workers choose our firm for our-on-one interaction and commitment to providing straightforward answers to difficult questions. We are available to take your call 24/7/365. Contact us today at 1-800-468-4878.

Willis Law Firm, Offshore & Maritime Lawyer
Nationwide Help - Licensed in Texas and New York
Principal Office
5005 Riverway Drive
Suite #160

Houston, Texas 77056

By Appointment Only
Willis Law Firm Portway Plaza
1717 Turning Basin Dr.
Suite #232

Houston, Texas 77029

Back to Top


Protect Your Rights.

"Willis battled the chemical companies
and won our case." - MELISSA C.