Louisiana law has limited circumstances that allow punitive damages. But the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled last year that the state can award punitive damages for accidents arising under federal maritime law.
What Are Punitive Damages?
There are two types of damages: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are designed to make the victim whole. For example, if you are injured in an accident you’ll probably have medical bills and lost wages from missing work. Victims should not have to pay these expenses, which is why they are awarded compensatory damages.
Punitive damages are different. These damages are designed to punish someone for conduct that results in personal injury or property damage.
The Louisiana Supreme Court Case
In May 2005, Derek Hebert and several other young people were riding in a 1998 Champion boat operated by Daniel Vamvoras. They were traveling on navigable waters — specifically on a former channel of the Calcasieu River. The boat was going fast enough for its hull to rise out of the water. At that point, the hydraulic steering system (which was manufactured by Teleflex) suddenly failed.
The boat hooked around violently (performing what’s called a J-hook), ejecting Derek and four other passengers. The kill switch wasn’t engaged and the boat spun around so that the propeller struck Derek 19 times. He died from his injuries.
Derek’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit under Louisiana’s products liability law and a punitive damages claim under general maritime law. While punitive damages are only available in Louisiana where authorized by statute, the court recognized that punitive damages are permitted under general maritime law “where a defendant’s intentional or wanton and reckless conduct amounted to a conscious disregard for the rights of others.”
Here, the jury found that Teleflex acted wantonly, recklessly or in callous disregard for its customers’ safety. The appeals court upheld the jury’s findings, and the Supreme Court affirmed. Specifically, the Supreme Court found that Teleflex knew its hydraulic steering system could fail but failed to warn customers of that risk. “This failure was more than simple negligence. Instead, it evinces a conscious disregard for, or indifference to, the safety of its customers, justifying the imposition of punitive damages.”
Federal Maritime Law
There are multiple federal and state laws that apply to injured maritime workers. For example, the Jones Act applies to seaman who are injured while working on vessels on navigable waters. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act covers claims for incidents on fixed structures that are more than three nautical miles from the U.S. Coast. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act provides compensation to injured maritime workers, such as harbor workers, shipbuilders and ship repairmen (this law does not cover seamen).
General maritime law covers all other incidents that take place on vessels operating on oceans, seas and lakes. For example, maritime law governs marine trade, shipping, passengers and the transportation of goods.
Contact Us Today
Contact Patrick Yancey Law Firm today for a free consultation if you have been injured in an offshore-related accident. Our experienced attorneys will help determine your eligibility for compensation under federal maritime law.