Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in this landmark case concerning punitive damages. The six justices in the majority opinion reversed the Ninth Circuit and resolved a circuit split on this issue. The question presented was whether punitive damages may be awarded to a Jones Act seaman in a personal injury suit alleging a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor.
In Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries, No. 17-1104, — S. Ct. —, 2019 WL 1245520 (U.S. March 19, 2019), the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a circuit split regarding maritime law and the “bare metal” defense, namely whether manufacturers have a duty to warn when their bare metal product requires later incorporation of a dangerous part in order for the integrated product to function as intended. Justice Kavanaugh wrote the opinion for a 6-3 court, with Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito dissenting.
“Bare Metal” Products at Issue
In Air and Liquid Systems Corp v. Devries, the defendant manufacturers produced shipboard equipment such as pumps, blowers, and turbines for various Navy ships on which the plaintiffs, two Navy veterans, were employed. The equipment required asbestos insulation or asbestos parts to function as intended. However, the defendant manufacturers did not always incorporate the asbestos into their products; they delivered much of the equipment to the Navy without asbestos. The defendants’ equipment was delivered in a condition known as “bare metal,” and the Navy later added the asbestos to the equipment.
Case: Warren v. Shelter Mutual Ins. Co., No. 2016-C-1647 (La. 10/18/17), ___ So. 3d ___.
A recreational boating accident occurred on navigable inland waters of Louisiana in May of 2005 resulting in the death of a 22-year old passenger. While the boat was on plane, the hydraulic steering system manufactured by defendant Teleflex suddenly failed due to fluid loss, causing the boat to turn violently with the motor going into a free spin (known in the industry as a “J-hook” or “kill spin”). Decedent and other passengers were ejected from the boat, and thereafter, the boat continued to spin around with its propeller striking decedent 19 times, resulting in death.
Decedent’s parents filed suit under general maritime law and products liability for the wrongful death of their son, and sought punitive damages under the general maritime law. Their claims against Teleflex, a sophisticated boating industry manufacturer, centered on its failure to warn unsuspecting users of the inherent danger in its product—that a very small loss of fluid would result in loss of steering and potentially cause ejection and death.
Following trial, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff and against Teleflex for failure to warn, awarding compensatory damages of $125,000 and punitive damages of $23 million. Teleflex appealed the verdict, and the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed.…
Continue Reading Louisiana Supreme Court Holds Punitive Damages Are Available Under General Maritime Law Against Products Liability Defendant