Punitive Damages Stow Away in the Fifth Circuit: McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C

Laura R. Beck | Note

ESTIS RIG 23, a barge carrying a truck-mounted drilling rig, was conducting drilling operations on a navigable waterway in Louisiana. One night, the monkey boardtwisted, and the pipe in the derrick shifted. As the barge crew members were attempting to straighten it the next day, the rig and truck toppled over. One crew member, Skye Sonnier, was fatally pinned between the fallen derrick and a tank on the barge.

Haleigh McBride, individually and on behalf of Sonnier’s minor child and estate, filed suit against Estis Well Service, L.L.C., the rig’s owner and operator, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. The complaint alleged claims of unseaworthiness under general maritime law and negligence under the Jones Act for which McBride sought compensatory as well as “punitive and/or exemplary” damages. Three other crew members also filed suit against Estis, alleging the same causes of action and seeking the same relief. The district court consolidated the actions on the crew members’ motion, and a Magistrate Judge presided with the parties’ consent.Estis moved to dismiss the claims for punitive damages on the basis that punitive damages are not an available remedy under either unseaworthiness or the Jones Act as a matter of law. The district court granted Estis’s motion and entered judgment dismissing all claims for punitive damages.The district court then granted the plaintiffs’ motion for interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), recognizing that the issues were “the subject of national debate with no clear consensus.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit accepted the interlocutory appeal. Without deciding whether punitive damages are available to seamen under the Jones Act, the Fifth Circuit held that punitive damages are an available remedy to seamen as part of a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim. McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., 731 F.3d 505, 518, 2013 AMC 2409, 2428 (5th Cir. 2013), reh’g en banc granted, 743 F.3d 458 (5th Cir. 2014).