Across the nation, courts are divided on the issue of whether punitive damages should be awarded in admiralty cases. While some courts have found punitive damages to be in unavailable in admiralty, some courts remain willing to award punitive damages under certain circumstances in a limited number of cases.
With respect to claims brought in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississipi, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that punitive damages may be available in the right kind of case. In 1981, the Fifth Circuit held that punitive damages may be recovered under general maritime law when a ship owner acts with gross disregard for a seaman’s rights. Because the Fifth Circuit is controlling precedent in Louisiana federal courts, this favorable federal jurisprudence indicates the potential for punitive damages in the state.
The decision to award punitive damages is primarily a policy decision. Punitive damages are not determined by a plaintiff’s need for compensation but rather by the economic impact that the award would have in the general maritime setting. For example, expensive medical bills incurred as a result of the injury would not be perceived as a reason for an award of punitive damages; whereas, ensuring the promotion of safe working conditions across the maritime industry may suffice. Generally, punitive damages are only awarded as a means of deterrence.
In making the determination of whether to award punitive damages, courts typically consider several factors. First, the conduct at issue must reflect a shipowner’s wanton and intentional disregard of seaman’s rights. Additionally, the wrongdoer’s alleged misconduct must have been callous, willful and persistent, or grossly negligent. Courts further consider whether the defendant acted with actual malice or criminal indifference equating to reckless and wanton misconduct. If these factors are met, an individual may be entitled to punitive damages. For further questions, contact Broussard, David & Moroux at 888-337-2323(toll free) or 337-233-2323 (local).