Injured Sailors May Seek Punitive Damages in the Asbestos MDL

Posted on September 9th, 2014 by sutteroconnell

U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania oversees asbestos multidistrict litigation, better known as MDL 875.  Robreno issued a decision in July which permits injured sailors to seek punitive damage awards. The opinion is captioned: In Re: Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI), Hector L. Sanchez, et al. v. Various Defendants.  Judge Robreno’s ruling is directed at specific types of cases brought under federal maritime law.  Judge Robreno ruled that punitive damages may be pursued under unseaworthiness claims brought under general maritime law, not pursuant to the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. § 30104) or the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) (46 U.S.C. § 30301).  The ruling harkens back to long standing common law principles definitive of general maritime law.

The case was brought on behalf of merchant marines and their survivors against various ship owners.  The plaintiffs assert unseaworthiness claims, alleging exposure to asbestos-containing products used aboard the ships, causing various asbestos related diseases.  Based on these claims, the plaintiffs’ complaints sought recovery of punitive damages.

Judge Robreno had approximately 1,800 motions for partial judgment on the pleadings filed by the defendants with respect to the plaintiffs’ claims for punitive damages pending on his docket.  The defendants argued that punitive damages are unavailable under the general maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness.  The plaintiffs argued that punitive damages may be awarded for unseaworthiness claims under the test established in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).  The plaintiffs also argued that punitive damages are not only proper in unseaworthiness claims brought by injured seamen directly, but also extend to survival actions.

Judge Robreno recognized that the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the issue of punitive damages under general maritime law.  Traditional maritime law limited seamen’s actions against their employers to claims for “maintenance and cure” and “unseaworthiness.”  The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized unseaworthiness as a strict liability tort, holding a shipowner “liable for failure to supply a safe ship irrespective of fault and irrespective of the intervening negligence of crew members.”  Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 25 (1990).  Historically, general maritime law did not permit either survival or wrongful death actions if a seaman died from his injuries.  In 1920, the Jones Act and the DOHSA were promulgated by Congress, which allowed Seamen and their relatives were to file causes of action for wrongful death and survivorship under maritime law.  Under both statutes, recovery is limited to money damages.

Judge Robreno reviewed the history of asbestos products and asbestos litigation over the past twenty years.  Noting that asbestos is heavily regulated today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), and that many corporations who sold asbestos-containing products have declared bankruptcy in light of asbestos litigation, Robreno gave credence to the defendants’ arguments that punitive damages are not appropriate in asbestos cases.  However, Robreno rationalized his ruling on punitive damage awards by citing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and explained that “whether a defendant’s particular course of conduct has ceased is irrelevant to the accomplishment’ of the broader general deterrence function of punitive damages awards.”

While permitting punitive damages in response to 27 of the approximately 1,800 motions for partial judgment, Robreno held that any relief for punitive damages under maritime law must conform to limitations under the Due Process Clause, maritime law, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Because most, if not all, of the plaintiffs’ claims fail to satisfy the required standards for punitive damages, Robreno granted the defendants’ motions for judgment, but provided certain plaintiffs the opportunity to file amended complaints in order to sufficiently fulfill the requirements.