In an opinion exceeding 40 pages, a federal judge announced on June 9, 2014 that he would permit sailors to seek punitive damages in an ongoing multidistrict litigation asbestos-related product liability case.The case involves questions about the interaction between two federal statutes from the 1920s, The Jones act, the Death on the High Seas Act, and federal common law.
In answer to the question: are sailors and their families permitted to pursue punitive damages by using federal common law or are they barred by the federal statutes, the federal judge answered yes and no. On the issue of whether injured sailors are allowed to pursue punitive damages from their ship owners, the judged found that punitive damages were not prohibited by the Jones Act.
The federal cause of action upon which the sailors case was built is called unseaworthiness in shorthand. It requires ship owners to provide their sailors with a sound ship or face lawsuits.
Under the Jones Act, only actual damages can be recovered not punitive damages. However, the federal judge presiding over the case found that the notion of seaworthiness predates the federal legislation and creates a quasi-contract between the sailors and the ship owners.
The federal legislation does not limit or detail precisely how sailors can remedy unseaworthiness claims. The judge found that because remedies are not listed, there could be no limitations on the range of potential remedies permitted under federal common law.
If congress had wanted to limit punitive damages, then, the court argued, they would have clearly stated the potential remedies. Based on this reading then, federal contract common law principles permit punitive damages in some cases.
The judge did conclude that sailors who died and whose estates were parties to the litigation could not pursue punitive damages because a United States Supreme Court case prohibited wrongful death claims in their entirety. To date, this is the largest multidistrict tort litigation case and key developments will likely continue.
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