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Sailors Win The Right To Pursue Punitive Damages In Asbestos MDL Case

Posted on behalf of Greg Coleman Law on Jul 11, 2014 in Asbestos

As of June 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is dealing with 186,592 consolidated asbestos product liability cases.

The opinion reveals a conflict between the federal statutes and the federal common law that overlap in handling tort product liability cases that apply to sailors. The Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act are two federal laws that allow sailors to sue employers and ship owners only for actual damages.

The parties involve sailors who are suing ship owners for providing asbestos-laden ships that caused lung damage. The most recent opinion deals with whether seamen who are bringing an asbestos claim under a maritime law cause of action can also pursue punitive damages in addition to the actual damages from their asbestos injuries.

The answer to this legal issue is both yes and no. On June 9, 2014, a federal judge announced that sailors were not prevented from pursuing punitive damages. The judge clarified that only injured sailors could move forward with that claim.

Deceased sailors represented by their estates, the judge argued, were prevented by a Supreme Court decision outlawing wrongful death claims. The judge denied deceased sailors and their estates punitive damages because the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that wrongful death cases were only to be governed by the Jones Act.

The Jones Act does not permit punitive damages in wrongful death claims. Because the federal act explicitly states that wrongful death claims can only be handled by the Jones Act then, deceased sailors can only recover through the act.

However, sailors who are still alive can recover under federal common law which permits, in some cases, punitive damages. Currently, the combined case has handled or is handling over 3.5 million asbestos claims against companies ranging from General Electric to 3M to Sears Roebuck & Co. 

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