In Landmark Decision, Supreme Court of Washington Holds that Jones Act Seamen Can Recover Punitive Damages for Vessel Unseaworthiness

On March 9, 2017, the Supreme Court of Washington held that a Jones Act seaman could recover punitive damages in an unseaworthiness claim. At least within the state of Washington, this ruling clarified previous confusion regarding applicability of common law damages for unseaworthiness claims. The case involved a plaintiff who lost two of his fingers while moving fish below deck. A hatch with a broken handle could not be closed in time and severed the plaintiff’s fingers. The plaintiff alleged that the vessel operators knew about the broken handle but failed to repair it.

Seaworthiness refers to the fit condition or preparedness of a vessel, which is necessary for maritime purposes; in other terms, a seaworthy vessel is one that is reasonably safe to use and perform her assigned tasks. The seaworthiness of each vessel depends on different factors such as the purpose of the vessel, technical advances and the circumstances of transport. A vessel is required to be in operable, rather than perfect, condition. Obvious indications of unseaworthiness that apply in any context include a deteriorated hull, inoperable equipment, and missing equipment.

While a vessel owner only has a duty to exercise reasonable care with respect to its passengers, the owner owes an absolute duty to provide a seaworthy vessel with respect to its employees and crewmen. Therefore, if the vessel’s hull and equipment are deteriorated or there are other apparent-as well as non-apparent-conditions that should not have been overlooked by the vessel operators, there could be grounds for a finding of unseaworthiness and punitive damages.

The Supreme Court of Washington declined to follow federal appellate decisions that reached a contrary result. Currently, there is no ruling from the United States Supreme Court on the issue of punitive damages for Jones Act Seamen claiming unseaworthiness. The Supreme Court of Washington’s decision may help encourage the United States Supreme Court to take up the issue.

If you have been seriously injured or your loved one has been killed while working offshore, it is important to find an attorney with experience handling complex maritime injury cases. Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner is the oldest personal injury firm in Texas, and our attorneys have successfully handled numerous maritime injury claims. Contact us today by calling (713) 222-7211 or toll free at 713-222-7211.