Judge Rules Merchant Sailors Can Seek Punitive Damages in Asbestos Litigation

On June 9, a federal judge announced ruled that merchant sailors would be allowed to seek punitive asbestos-related product liability damages in an ongoing multi-district litigation case.

Injured sailors would be permitted to seek damages directly from ship owners, though, due to a Supreme Court precedent, their estates would not be able to seek punitive damages as part of a wrongful death claim.

Under the Jones Act, only actual damages may be recovered. However, the judge in this case found that the notion of “seaworthiness” has a contractual component since it arises from a “master’s duty” to provide servants with a seaworthy ship – a requirement supported by common law.

The federal legislation does not limit how sailors may remedy ‘unseaworthiness’ claims, but because remedies are not listed, there may be no limitations on the range of potential remedies permitted under federal common law.

Litigation was filed by various ship owners on behalf of merchant marines and their survivors, who allege exposure to ship-born asbestos.

This multi-district litigation is the longest running mass tort in U.S. history.