Supreme Court Denies Injured Seaman’s Bid for Punitive Damages

June 26, 2019

The Supreme Court has ruled that an injured merchant seaman can’t seek punitive damages based on the common-law maritime claim of unseaworthiness.

The ruling settled a difference of opinion in the courts over whether punitive damages are available for unseaworthiness claims.

In a 6-3 Dutra Group v. Batterton opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court noted that it has twice in the past several decades considered the issue of whether a mariner may recover punitive damages on a claim that he was injured as a result of the unseaworthy condition of the vessel.

In Miles, Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U. S. 19, which concerned a wrongful- death claim under the general maritime law, the court held that recovery was limited to pecuniary damages, which did not include loss of society. Miles established that the court “should look primarily to legislative enactments for policy guidance” in maritime and admiralty cases, while recognizing that statutory remedies may be supplemented to “achieve the uniform vindication” of the policies served by the relevant statutes.

Then in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U. S. 404, the court held that punitive damages are not categorically barred as part of the award on the traditional maritime claim of maintenance and cure. In Atlantic, the court allowed recovery of punitive damages but justified that departure from the statutory remedial scheme based on the established history of awarding punitive damages for certain maritime torts, including maintenance and cure.

The Supreme court has now decided definitely there is no basis for such damages.

“Here, because there is no historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions, and in order to promote uniformity with the way courts have applied parallel statutory causes of action, we hold that punitive damages remain unavailable in unseaworthiness actions,” Alito wrote.

“The overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined Alito in the majority opinion. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined.

According to the facts of the case decided by the court, Christopher Batterton was working on a vessel owned by Dutra Group when a hatch blew open and injured his hand. Batterton sued Dutra, asserting a variety of claims, including unseaworthiness, and seeking general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, arguing that they are not available on claims for unseaworthiness. The District Court in California denied Dutra’s motion, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

This court said Congress has clearly expressed policies, particularly those in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act)—which codified the rights of injured mariners by incorporating the rights provided to railway workers under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). Early decisions held that FELA damages were strictly compensatory.

Batterton argued that punitive damages are justified on “policy grounds or as a regulatory measure.” But the court said that unseaworthiness in strict-liability form, while it is this “court’s own invention and came after passage of the Jones Act,” contradicts guidance provided by Congress.

Allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would also create “bizarre disparities” in the law, according to the opinion, which noted that because unseaworthiness claims run against the owner of the vessel, the owner could be liable for punitive damages while the ship’s master or operator—who could be more culpable—would not be liable for such damages under the Jones Act. Also allowing punitive damages would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen, the court wrote.

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