Mcbride ex rel. Southern v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., No. 12-30714

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtW. EUGENE DAVIS, Circuit Judge
PartiesHALEIGH JANEE MCBRIDE, individually & on behalf of I. M. S., Plaintiff - Appellant v. ESTIS WELL SERVICE, L.L.C., Defendant - Appellee BRIAN J. SUIRE, Plaintiff - Appellant v. ESTIS WELL SERVICE, L.L.C., Defendant - Appellee SAUL C. TOUCHET, Plaintiff - Appellant v. ESTIS WELL SERVICE, L.L.C., Defendant - Appellee
Decision Date25 September 2014
Docket NumberNo. 12-30714

HALEIGH JANEE MCBRIDE, individually & on behalf of I. M. S., Plaintiff - Appellant
ESTIS WELL SERVICE, L.L.C., Defendant - Appellee

BRIAN J. SUIRE, Plaintiff - Appellant
ESTIS WELL SERVICE, L.L.C., Defendant - Appellee

SAUL C. TOUCHET, Plaintiff - Appellant
ESTIS WELL SERVICE, L.L.C., Defendant - Appellee

No. 12-30714


REVISED: October 24, 2014
September 25, 2014

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana


W. EUGENE DAVIS, Circuit Judge:

We took this case en banc to decide whether the seaman plaintiffs in this case, both the injured seamen and the personal representative of the deceased seaman, can recover punitive damages under either the Jones Act or the general maritime law. We affirm the district court and conclude that this case is controlled by the Supreme Court's decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp.,1 which holds that the Jones Act limits a seaman's recovery to pecuniary losses where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or unseaworthiness. Because punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses, punitive damages may not be recovered in this case.


These consolidated cases arise out of an accident aboard Estis Rig 23, a barge supporting a truck-mounted drilling rig operating in Bayou Sorrell, a navigable waterway in the State of Louisiana. The truck right toppled over, and one crew member, Skye Sonnier, was fatally pinned between the derrick and mud tank, and three others, Saul Touchet, Brian Suire, and Joshua

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Bourque,2 have alleged injuries. At the time of the incident, Estis Well Service, L.L.C. ("Estis") owned and operated Rig 23, and employed Sonnier, Touchet, Suire, and Bourque (collectively, the "crew members").

Haleigh McBride, individually, on behalf of Sonnier's minor child, and as administratrix of Sonnier's estate, filed suit against Estis, stating causes of action for unseaworthiness under general maritime law and negligence under the Jones Act and seeking compensatory as well as punitive damages under both claims. The other crew members filed separate actions against Estis alleging the same causes of action and also requesting compensatory and punitive damages. Upon the crew members' motion, the cases were consolidated into a single action. Estis moved to dismiss the claims for punitive damages, arguing that punitive damages are not an available remedy as a matter of law where liability is based on unseaworthiness or Jones Act negligence. Treating it as a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), the court granted the motion and entered judgment dismissing all claims for punitive damages. Recognizing that the issues presented were "the subject of national debate with no clear consensus," the court granted plaintiffs' motion to certify the judgment for immediate appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). This interlocutory appeal followed.

The panel, in a scholarly opinion, concluded that the Supreme Court's recent opinion in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend3 controlled this case. The panel acknowledged that the Townsend court was presented with the limited issue of whether a seaman can recover punitive damages from his employer for willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. That case did not involve a claim for punitive damages under either the Jones Act or the general

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maritime law. The panel, however, reasoned that the implication of Townsend's holding is broader and teaches that because the unseaworthiness cause of action and the punitive damages remedy pre-existed the Jones Act and the Jones Act did not address either, then both the cause of action and remedy of punitive damages are available to injured seamen and the survivors of deceased seamen.

We granted rehearing en banc to determine whether the Supreme Court's decision in Miles, holding that the Jones Act limits a seaman's recovery for unseaworthiness under that Act or the general maritime law to "pecuniary losses," is still good law and whether that holding precludes plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages.


Whether punitive damages are an available remedy under the Jones Act and general maritime law to seamen or their survivors is a question of law we review de novo.4

A. Background

Appellants' arguments are founded primarily on their claim under general maritime law. A brief discussion of the legal and historical background of the general maritime law as it relates to the plaintiffs' case is therefore in order.

We start from the bedrock premise that the "[j]udicial power, in all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, is delegated by the Constitution to the Federal Government in general terms,"5 reflecting "the adoption by all

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commercial nations (our own included) of the general maritime law as the basis and groundwork of all their maritime regulations."6 Once general maritime law was embedded in federal law, however, the question arose as to which branch of government had the authority to modify the maritime law. Over 160 years ago, the Supreme Court declared that the maritime law was subject to regulation by Congress: "The power of Congress to change the mode of proceeding in this respect in its courts of admiralty, will, we suppose, hardly be questioned."7 The Court later summarized: "[I]t must now be accepted as settled doctrine that, in consequence of these provisions, Congress has paramount power to fix and determine the maritime law which shall prevail throughout the country."8

In 1886, the Court, in The Harrisburg,9 held that no action for wrongful death "will lie in the courts of the United States under the general maritime law." That remained the law of the land until the Supreme Court overruled The Harrisburg in Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc. in 1970.10

B. The Jones Act and FELA

In 1920, Congress enacted the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104, and extended to seamen the same negligence remedy for damages afforded to railroad workers under the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA").11 This provided a remedy to seamen and their survivors to sue for compensation for personal injury and wrongful death based on the negligence of the seamen's employer. Because Congress imported FELA into the Jones Act, we must begin our analysis with FELA.

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Under 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-59, FELA provides that a carrier is liable for its negligence, although the employee's recovery is reduced if he was negligent. 12 The compensation allowed for the employee's recovery is simply "in damages."13 The damages allowed under FELA were defined by the Supreme Court in Michigan Central Railroad Co. v. Vreeland.14 In construing FELA, the Court stated with respect to damages in this wrongful death action: "It is a liability for the loss and damage sustained by relatives dependent upon the decedent. It is therefore a liability for the pecuniary damage resulting to them and for that only."15

The Vreeland Court stated that the damages under FELA "are such as flow from the deprivation of the pecuniary benefits which the beneficiaries might have reasonably received if the deceased had not died from his injuries."16 As there must be "some reasonable expectation of pecuniary assistance or support of which they have been deprived" the Court held that "[c]ompensation for such loss manifestly does not include damages by way of recompense for grief or wounded feelings."17 Similarly, the term "pecuniary" "excludes, also, those losses which result from the deprivation of the society and companionship, which are equally incapable of being defined by any recognized measure of value."18 Because the jury instruction on damages in Vreeland was not "confined to a consideration of the financial benefits which might reasonably be expected from [the decedent] in a pecuniary way," the Court reversed the judgment entered on the verdict.19

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With this background, we turn to the Supreme Court's unanimous opinion in Miles in 1990, which we conclude controls this appeal.

A. Miles

The facts in Miles are on all fours with Ms. McBride's wrongful death action. In both cases, the personal representative of a deceased seaman sued the employer for wrongful death under the Jones Act and general maritime law. No maintenance and cure action was presented in either case. In both cases the seaman met his death in the service of his ship in state waters. The Supreme Court made three significant holdings relevant to this case. The Court held that:

(1) Before the Court's decision in Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc. in 1970,20 the general maritime law provided no recovery for wrongful death. 21

(2) The Court then recognized the anomaly created by the Court's Moragne decision, which granted to survivors of longshoremen killed in state waters the right to sue for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law, yet afforded no similar right to the seaman's...

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