• District Court: Punitive Damages Are Available Under § 905(B) of the LHWCA
  • October 21, 2013
  • Law Firm: Jones Walker LLP - New Orleans Office
  • In Callahan v. Gulf Logistics, LLC, the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana held that punitive damages may be awarded in a negligence action brought under §905(b) of the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) for alleged injuries sustained outside territorial waters in its denial of a motion to dismiss such a claim. No. 6:06-CV-0561, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133050 (W.D. La. 2013). Section 905(b) authorizes longshoremen to recover under the LHWCA for the negligence of a vessel. 33 U.S.C. §905(b) (2012). Despite unsettled case law on the issue, the district court held that punitive damages are recoverable under general maritime law unless Congress expressly forbids such a recovery. Callahan, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133060, at *10. The Court reasoned that because the LHWCA does not expressly limit plaintiffs' recovery to pecuniary damages, punitive damages should be recoverable. Id. at *8-10.

    In reaching its decision, the district court pointed to the evolution of the United States Supreme Court precedent on the issue. See id. at *4-10. For example, the Court highlighted Sea-Land Services v. Gaudet, in which the Supreme Court held that a widow could seek recovery for loss of society when her deceased husband was a longshoreman who died of injuries sustained in territorial waters. 414 U.S. 573, 591 (1974). However, in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., the Supreme Court appeared to limit the availability of nonpecuniary damages to longshoremen in territorial waters when it asserted that "[t]he holding of Gaudet applies only in territorial waters, and it applies only to longshoremen." Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 31-32 (1990). And yet nearly 20 years later, in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the Supreme Court seemingly loosened the reins on the recovery of punitive damages in maritime cases when it held that punitive damages have historically been awarded in general maritime claims, and that neither Miles nor the Jones Act precluded the recovery of punitive damages in an action for maintenance and cure. 557 U.S. 404, 421 (2009). Furthermore, the Supreme Court in Townsend distinguished the facts from Miles by stating:

    Unlike Miles' situation, both the general maritime cause of action here (maintenance and cure) and the remedy (punitive damages) were well established before the Jones Act's passage. And unlike Miles' facts, the Jones Act does not address the general maritime cause of action here or its remedy. It is thus possible to adhere to the traditional understanding of maritime actions and remedies without abridging or violating the Jones Act.

    Id. at 406.

    In Callahan, the District Court for the Western District of Louisiana relies heavily on Townsend in holding that general maritime law remedies are available under the LHWCA unless expressly forbidden. While this issue is far from settled, it is important to note the possibility that punitive damages may be awarded when assessing liability under § 905(b) because it has the potential to significantly increase damages.