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Court Holds Punitive Damages Can Be Recovered for Unseaworthiness

SSM Roundel

Steamship Mutual

Published: June 22, 2017


On March 8 2017, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the Trial Court’s decision in Tabingo v American Seafoods Company and held that a seaman could recover punitive damages under the general maritime law doctrine of unseaworthiness.

Tabingo injured his hand whilst working for American Seafoods as a trainee deckhand onboard the “American Triumph”, which resulted in the amputation of two fingers. It was alleged that during routine operations the crew were unable to prevent the hydraulic hatch from closing on Tabingo’s hand because the control handle was broken. It was further alleged that American Seafoods had known of the defective handle for approximately two years. Tabingo started proceedings claiming punitive damages premised on an allegation of unseaworthiness. American Seafood applied for summary judgment to dismiss the claim for nonpecuniary damages because, they argued, punitive damages are prohibited under the Jones Act.

The trial court agreed with American Seafood (see 'Punitive Damages and Unseaworthiness').

Subsequently Tabingo successfully applied for a review of the Trial Court’s decision, which led to review before the Washington State Supreme Court on the question of whether punitive damages are available under the theory of unseaworthiness.

On 17 January 2017 the Washington State Supreme Court considered three questions:

1. Whether Jones Act claims and unseaworthiness claims were separate causes of action.

The Court held that they were on the basis that Congress created the Jones Act to remedy the historical prohibition on a seaman suing their employer for negligence.

2. Whether the United States Supreme Court’s conclusions in Townsend v Atlantic Sounding (Townsend) were applicable (see 'U.S. - Punitive Damages in Maintenance and Cure Cases'). 

The Court noted that Townsend held that maintenance and cure and the availability of punitive damages existed before the Jones Act was introduced, as did an unseaworthiness cause of action and, just like unseaworthy claims, are not based on a statutory remedy. Tabingo basically substitutes maintenance and cure for unseaworthiness to reach its conclusion.

American Seafoods had relied on Miles v Apex Marine Corp [1990] and the so called Miles Uniformity Rule. The Court rejected their argument because they interpret Miles to be limited solely to wrongful death claims where Congress has already spoken, via the Death on the High Seas Act holding that such claims are limited to pecuniary loss.

3. Whether the Court should follow the ruling in McBride v Estis Well Service [2014] (see "Punitive Damages - Punishing Times"). 

The decision in McBride was that where a Jones Act claim and general maritime claim are joined in the same action the bar on punitive damages applies equally to both.

The Washington State Supreme Court in Tabingo ruled that McBride misinterpreted Miles because that case dealt with claims which were limited to tort remedies grounded in statute whereas unseaworthiness is no such a remedy. Therefore, the Court held that Miles and McBride were neither persuasive or controlling in the Tabingo case.

Having considered all of the arguments the Washington State Supreme Court concluded that a finding in favour of the availability of punitive damages for an unseaworthiness cause of action would remain consistent with the public policy of treating seaman as wards of admiralty and the goal of providing them with protection. The Courts decision was that a seaman making a claim under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness can include a request for punitive damages as a matter of law.

As a result of this decision it is likely that Shipowner defendants in the 9th circuit may now face claims for punitive damages in cases of alleged unseaworthiness. The decision could also have ramifications for the whole of the US as, whilst the decision is binding precedent only in state courts in Washington it is possible to imagine that claimants in other circuits will attempt to rely upon it as being persuasive authority.

It remains to be seen how the courts address this issue but it may be that a two prong test will be utilised. Part one would likely involve the finder of fact determining whether an unseaworthy condition existed and if so if this involved wilful, malicious, egregious or reckless conduct on the part of the Shipowner. It is this latter prong that is necessary as a basis for a claim for punitive damages.

This issue remains clouded by a pending case in Federal Court in the name of Batterton v Dutra Group which is also considering the availability of punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases.

For reference the Tabingo case was decided in state court by the Washington Supreme Court which is the ultimate arbiter of the law for state trial courts or lower appellate courts in Washington State. State trial courts are bound by Washington Supreme Court judgments to the extent they do not conflict with US Supreme Court decisions relating to federal law. However, federal courts in the ninth circuit are not bound by state court verdicts and so, in theory, the decision in Batterton might well be different to the one reached in Tabingo.


Article by Georgia Lansbury
Claims Executive
Americas Syndicate

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