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Punitive damages available for product-liability claim brought under general maritime law

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

The plaintiff was injured while fishing aboard his flatboat in the Atchafalaya Basin. The handle of his trolling motor broke when he went to pull up the motor. The failure of the handle caused him to fall and sustain serious injuries. The handle was an aftermarket “G-Force” handle and cable system manufactured by the defendant T-H Marine Supplies, LLC.

The plaintiff filed a products liability lawsuit against the defendant alleging that the handle system was defective. The defendant moved to dismiss several of the plaintiff’s claims including his claim for punitive damages.

The manufacturer argued the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages must fail because there is no authority support that punitive damages are recoverable in a product-liability claim brought under general maritime law. The court rejected this position and cited United States Supreme Court precedent holding that “punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law.” So, based on this decision, punitive damages are available for product-liability claims brought under general maritime law.

The manufacturer also argued that there was insufficient facts to justify presenting the issue of punitive damages to the jury at trial. To support its position, the manufacturer pointed out that punitive damages may only be available if the plaintiff proves that the defendant’s behavior is more than merely negligent, but rather was so egregious as to constitute gross negligence, reckless or callous disregard for the rights of others, or actual malice or criminal indifference. The manufacturer argued that there was no evidence that it engaged in a pattern of behavior sufficient to meet this standard.

The plaintiff countered this position by identifying twenty-two acts or omissions by the manufacturer in designing and manufacturing the G-Force . The plaintiff argued this was sufficient to constitute a pattern of negligence that ultimately leads to the conclusion that the defendant had a reckless disregard for the rights of others. The court agreed with the plaintiff and found that there was sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to reach a punitive damages verdict against the defendant.

Notably, the court in a subsequent evidentiary decision allowed the plaintiff to introduce evidence about the wealth of the manufacturer at trial. The defendant's wealth is relevant when a jury has to determine how much punitive damages to award. Wealthier defendants are exposed to higher punitive damage verdicts because a jury is allowed to tailor verdicts to ensure a grossly negligent defendant is sufficiently punished.

In sum, the the jury in this case will be allowed to (1) render a punitive damages verdict against the manufacturer; and (2) hear evidence concerning the wealth of the manufacturer for purposes of deciding how much punitive damages should be awarded.

A copy of the decision can be viewed through the following link:

Thibode_ v. T-H Marine Supplies_ LLC_ 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88330.PDF
Download PDF • 224KB

Please feel free to reach out at or (504) 553-1435 if you have any questions or would like to discuss.


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