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Tabingo v. American Triumph LLC

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

March 9, 2017

ALLAN A. TABINGO, Petitioner,

          OWENS, J.

         Allan Tabingo was seriously injured while working aboard a fishing trawler owned and operated by American Seafoods Company LLC and American Triumph LLC (collectively American Seafoods). Tabingo alleges the lever used to operate a hatch in the trawler's deck broke when an operator tried to stop the hatch from closing. The hatch closed on Tabingo's hand, leading to the amputation of two fingers. He brought numerous claims against American Seafoods, including a general maritime unseaworthiness claim for which he requested punitive damages. American Seafoods argued that as a matter of law, punitive damages are unavailable for unseaworthiness claims.

         Unseaworthiness is a general maritime claim. Neither the United States nor the Washington State Supreme Court have ruled on whether punitive damages are available under this theory. However, the United States Supreme Court has recently held that punitive damages are available for maintenance and cure, another general maritime claim. The Court held that because both the claim and the damages were historically available at common law and because Congress had shown no intent to limit recovery of punitive damages, those damages were available. Here, we follow the United States Supreme Court's rationale and find that, like maintenance and cure, punitive damages are available for a general maritime unseaworthiness claim. We reverse the trial court and remand for further proceedings.


         Allan Tabingo was a deckhand trainee aboard the fishing trawler American Triumph, owned and operated by American Seafoods. "Fishing trawlers" are vessels that catch and haul fish onto their decks using large nets. After the fish are aboard and dumped from the nets, one deckhand opens a steel hatch using hydraulic controls while another deckhand shovels the fish through the hatch for processing. Though deckhands can push most of the fish below decks with shovels, the design of the vessel requires them to get on all-fours and use their hands to move the final fish.

         In February 2015, Tabingo was tasked with moving the fish below decks. He was on his knees near the hatch's hinge, gathering the last remaining fish, when another deckhand started closing the hatch. Realizing how close Tabingo's hands were to the hatch, the deckhand attempted to correct his mistake. However, the hatch's control handle was broken and the deckhand could not stop the hatch. The hydraulic hatch closed on Tabingo's hand, resulting in the amputation of two fingers. Tabingo alleges that American Seafoods knew about the broken handle for two years before the incident but had failed to repair it.

         Tabingo filed suit against American Seafoods. He claimed negligence under the Jones Act (also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (46 U.S.C. § 30104)), as well as several general maritime claims, including one for unseaworthiness of the vessel. He requested compensatory damages against American Seafoods for all of his claims, and punitive damages for his general maritime claims, including his unseaworthiness claim.

         American Seafoods filed a motion for partial summary judgment moving to dismiss Tabingo's punitive damages claim. It argued that Tabingo had not stated a claim for which relief could be granted under CR 12(b)(6), and asked that the trial court follow a recent Fifth Circuit case, McBride v. Estis Well Serv., LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) (plurality opinion), holding that punitive damages are disallowed in general maritime law cases. American Seafoods claimed that punitive damages are prohibited under the Jones Act's provision for maritime negligence actions, and because the unseaworthiness claim was joined with a Jones Act negligence claim, punitive damages are barred for the unseaworthiness claim as well.

         After oral argument, a King County Superior Court judge granted the motion for partial summary judgment on CR 12(b)(6) grounds. The judge found that, based on Washington and federal law, the measure of damages available in a Jones Act negligence claim and an unseaworthiness claim are identical. Because of this, the Jones Act circumscribes the damages available under the doctrine of unseaworthiness. The trial court ruled that a plaintiff may not seek nonpecuniary damages in either general maritime or negligence claims and, because punitive damages are nonpecuniary, dismissed Tabingo's punitive damages claim.

         Tabingo filed a direct interlocutory petition for review with this court, which was granted. Ruling Granting Review, Tabingo v. American Triumph, LLC, No. 92913-1 (Wash. Jun. 28, 2016).


         Can a seaman request punitive damages under a general maritime unseaworthiness claim?


         At issue here is a challenge to a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. CR 12(b)(6). The trial court may grant a CR 12(b)(6) motion when the plaintiff can provide no conceivable set of facts consistent with the complaint that would entitle him or her to a relief. Becker v. Cmty. Health Sys., Inc.,184 Wn.2d 252, 257-58, 359 P.3d 746 (2015) (citing Corrigal v. Ball & DoddFuneral Home, Inc.,89 Wn.2d 959, 961, 577 P.2d 580 (1978)). All allegations set forth by the nonmoving party are presumed to be true. Kinney v. Cook,159 Wn.2d 837, 842, 154 P.3d 206 (2007). If it is possible that facts could be established to support relief, the motion will not be granted. Kumar v. Gate Gourmet Inc.,180 Wn.2d 481, 488, 325 P.3d 193 (2014). A trial court's ruling to dismiss a claim under CR 12(b)(6) is a matter of law this court reviews de novo. See Kinney, 159 ...

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