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Judge rules some Jones Act plaintiffs may seek punitive damages

A federal judge in Pennsylvania who has overseen a sprawling, multidistrict litigation has made an important ruling on whether Jones Act plaintiffs can seek punitive damages.

Merchant marine workers and their survivors are suing ship owners, alleging that exposure to ship-born asbestos scarred their lungs and/or contributed to their deaths. They are suing under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act, two 1920 laws that allow seamen to sue ship owners and operators in cases of negligence.

However, those laws limit recoveries to monetary damages (such as medical expenses). They do not allow punitive damages, which are intended to punish defendants in cases of extreme negligence.

The plaintiffs claim the ships in question were not seaworthy. The duty of a ship owner to provide a seaworthy vessel arises from the “master/servant” relationship, a long-standing common law concept that predates the Jones Act. For this reason, Judge Eduardo C. Robreno ruled that claims of unseaworthiness do not fall under the Jones Act.

It would seem, therefore, that the plaintiffs can seek punitive damages. But under Robreno’s ruling, that is only true of those sailors who were injured, but not killed, by the conditions alleged. Robreno said that a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case established that wrongful death claims may only be pursued under the Jones Act, thereby precluding recovery of punitive damages. Robreno admitted the ruling seemed counterintuitive, but he stated that it followed Supreme Court precedent.

The multidistrict litigation was created in 1991 to manage all federal cases involving asbestos-related personal injury and wrongful death claims. It is the longest-running multidistrict litigation in history.

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