Punitive damages as opposed to compensatory damages are imposed as punishment for bad faith, wanton, outrageous, or reckless actions towards the plaintiff in a civil suit. However, punitive damages are used to not just to chastise a defendant for outrageous misconduct, but to deter the offending party and others from behaving in a similar manner in the future. As an example, an auto maker may be aware of a defect in a particular car but chooses to hide it from the consumer in order to get the full asking price for its product.

The Supreme Court has established guidelines in assessing punitive damages, thus making defendants’ exposure both reasonable and measurable. This reflects the general distaste toward the unlimited punitive damages some runaway juries impose. This aversion has translated to eliminating punitive damages altogether by certain state legislatures. The most recent victims of this procedure are seaman’s claims under general maritime law for dealing with the unseaworthiness of the vessels on which they are assigned.

In a decision published less than a month ago, the full Federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (15 judges sitting en banc)  held that punitive damages are unavailable in seamen’s unseaworthiness and Jones Act cases, thus expanding the holding of an earlier Supreme Court case. Without working through complicated legal issues, we take the following from this decision: even though a seaman is afforded compensatory remedies for his damages, the owner of an unseaworthy vessel can rest assured that he will never have exposure to punitive/exemplary damages, no matter how deplorable the condition of the vessel that caused the casualty.

Thank goodness there are more good vessel owners than irresponsible ones, and that the U.S. Coast Guard is very vigilant in inspecting vessels.