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By Tod J. Everage

Until the U.S. 5th Circuit gets an opportunity to directly address the continued viability of Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, 391 F.3d 660 (5th Cir. 2004) in the wake of Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), we are likely to see a lack of harmony among the district court judges considering this issue. Scarborough specifically protects third parties (see oil and gas companies) against punitive damage exposure (see uninsured) from injured seamen employed by their contractors (see vessel companies). We have been following the EDLA commentary on Scarborough as its erosion would significantly raise the potential liability of those companies who contract for the use of vessels. See previous posts here and here for more background on the Scarborough fight in the Eastern District of Louisiana. Recently, one of the two EDLA Judges holding the view that Scarborough was no longer good law reversed his course, resulting now in a 7-1 score in favor of Scarborough, further reducing concern for an unpredictable judicial roulette on this issue.

In a nutshell, Scarborough was the legal consequence of a long line of jurisprudence in the 5th Circuit holding that punitive damages were not available under the Jones Act or General Maritime Law (“GML”) that began with Miles v. Apex Marine, 498 U.S. 19 (1990). Where Miles protected the Jones Act employers from punitive damages, Scarborough protected all other third party defendants, such as oil and gas companies who had hired those Jones Act employers. In 2009, Townsend reined in the expanding prohibitions on punitive damages by finding that they could be awarded under GML for the employer’s willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure. Townsend very directly and explicitly abrogated Guevera v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 59 F.3d 1496 (5th Cir. 1995) which had previously held just the opposite. That abrogation is relevant here because the Scarborough court cited Guevera favorably and extensively in its analysis.

Though Townsend definitely overruled Guevera, it also re-affirmed Miles, which remains a pillar of maritime jurisprudence in this area. Plaintiff attorneys view Townsend as a means to reverse the expansion of Miles and have renewed their attack on those judge-made roadblocks to the availability of punitive damages. With oil and gas companies being viewed as the “deep pockets” in lawsuits, Scarborough’s protection of those companies has become a popular focus.

After Townsend, several judges re-affirmed Scarborough with little more than lip service, as it seemed clear that Townsend was limited to maintenance and cure issues and the district courts could not “assume the Fifth Circuit has changed its position on personal injury claims falling outside the scope of Townsend.” See In re: Deepwater Horizon, 2011 WL 4575696 (E.D. La. 9/30/11) (Barbier, J.); see also O’Quain v. Shell Offshore, Inc., 2013 WL 149467 (E.D. La. 1/14/13) (Berrigan, J.); In re: International Marine, LLC, 2013 WL 3293677 (E.D. La. 6/28/13) (Lemmon, J.); Bloodsaw v. Diamond Offshore Mgmt. Co., 2013 WL 5339207 (E.D. La. 8/19/13) (Vance, J.); Ainsworth v. Caillou Island Towing Co., 2013 WL 3216068 (E.D. La. 10/21/13) (Brown, J.). Despite the perceived clarity, Judge Barbier foresaw the potential dispute that could arise on this issue given the underlying reasoning in Townsend. (“Though this conclusion is not without doubt given the Supreme Court’s recent decision in [Townsend]…”). In Todd v. Canal Barge Co., 2013 WL 5410409 (E.D. La. 9/25/13), Judge Fallon provided the first true analysis of the continued validity of Miles and its progeny after Townsend. Therein, Judge Fallon acknowledged the limitations of Townsend and the re-affirmation of Miles, and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages for negligence and unseaworthiness. This opinion makes his later decision in Collins all-the-more anomalous.

In 2014, the U.S. 5th Circuit decided McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), wherein the en banc panel also held that Townsend was narrowly limited to maintenance and cure claims. McBride acknowledged the continued vitality of Miles to preclude all other forms of punitive damages claims under GML or the Jones Act, though it did not directly mention Scarborough. Judge Fallon then got another opportunity to address Scarborough in light of both Townsend and McBride. See Collins v. ABC Marine Towing, LLC, 2015 WL 5254710 (E.D. La. 9/9/2015). Therein, Judge Fallon distinguished Miles and McBride and was persuaded by Townsend’s abrogation of Guevera, which he felt served as the foundation for Scarborough. Judge Fallon held that Scarborough was “effectively overruled” by Townsend, finding that it was “inconsistent with current Supreme Court precedent.” He did not cite to his prior ruling in Todd just a year prior. This decision served as the first major blow to formerly-protected third party, non-Jones Act employers in the EDLA.

Shortly thereafter, Judge Morgan joined the majority, issuing two opinions upholding Scarborough. See Howard Offshore Liftboats, LLC, 2015 WL 7428581 (E.D. La. 11/20/15); Lee v. Offshore Logistical and Transports, LLC, 2015 WL 7459734 (E.D. La. 11/24/15). A few months later though, Judge Zainey issued an opinion against Scarborough, relying heavily on Judge Fallon’s reasoning in Collins. See Hume v. Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc., 2016 WL 1089349 (E.D. La. 3/21/16). Judge Morgan again re-affirmed her confidence in Scarborough in Lewis v. Noble Drilling Services, 2016 WL 3902597 (E.D. La. 7/19/2016).

Heading into the 2017, only Judges Fallon and Zainey had rejected the continued viability of Scarborough and its punitive damages prohibition, while at least six of their colleagues held differently. Then, unexpectedly, Judge Fallon changed his mind and joined the majority. See Wade v. Clemco Indus., No. 16-00502 (E.D. La. 2/1/2017). Wade presented Judge Fallon with yet another opportunity to directly address Scarborough; but, this time his analysis and holding were fundamentally different. Wherein Collins, he focused on Scarborough’s reliance on Guevera, in Wade, he instead focused on Miles. Judge Fallon was also persuaded this time by McBride: “It has become clear since the en banc opinion in McBride that in wrongful death cases brought under general maritime law, a survivor’s recovery from employers and non-employers is limited to pecuniary losses.” Quite differently than holding that Scarborough was “effectively overruled,” this time he noted that McBride gave it “clarity and vitality.” As a consequence, Judge Fallon dismissed the plaintiff’s punitive damages claims against the third parties who were not the plaintiff’s Jones Act employer. This is good news for third party defendants finding themselves on the wrong end of a Jones Act lawsuit in the EDLA, as there is now only one judge’s opinion in favor of (and seven against) allowing punitive damage claims to proceed against them. Since these decisions are interlocutory in nature, they do not get appealed by right, and all prior cases have settled before the 5th Circuit could comment. Nevertheless, we will keep an eye out for any further developments, hoping that the remaining judges who get an opportunity to consider this issue fall in line with the legally-sound majority.