In the case of Batterton v Dutra Group, decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on January 23, 2018, the panel held that punitive damages are awardable to seamen for their own injuries in general maritime unseaworthiness actions. In reaching this conclusion, the 9th Circuit specifically disagreed with the Fifth Circuit decision of McBride v Estis Well, denying the right to punitive damages. Instead, the 9th Circuit panel concluded the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miles v. Apex Marine Co. did not implicitly overrule its prior holdings that punitive damages were an available remedy for unseaworthiness claims. Instead, it relied on the Supreme Court decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend and found no distinction between the allowance of punitive damages in a general maritime law claim for maintenance & cure versus a claim for unseaworthiness.
The plaintiff, Christopher Batterton, was a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by the defendant, Dutra Group. While Batterton was working on the vessel in navigable waters, a hatch cover blew open and crushed his left hand. Pressurized air was being pumped into a compartment below the hatch cover and the vessel lacked an exhaust mechanism to relieve the pressure when it got too high. The lack of a mechanism for exhausting the pressurized air made the vessel unseaworthy and caused permanent disability and other damages to Batterton.
The only question before the Court was whether punitive damages are an available remedy for unseaworthiness claims.
Evich v. Morris
In answering this question, the 9th Circuit first noted that in its 1987 decision of Evich v. Morris, they determined that “[p]unitive damages are available under general maritime law for claims of unseaworthiness, and for failure to pay maintenance and cure.” In reaching that conclusion, the Evich court distinguished Jones Act claims, where punitive damages are unavailable. But, they held that the general maritime law standard to be applied for punitive damages in unseaworthiness and maintenance & cure claims was “conduct which manifests ‘reckless or callous disregard’ for the rights of others . . . or ‘gross negligence or actual malice [or] criminal indifference. ‘”
Miles v Apex Oil
Three years after the decision in Evich, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. This was a wrongful death case and the main issues before the Court were whether the parent of a deceased seaman could recover under the general maritime law for loss of society and future earnings. The court in Batterton observed that the permissibility of a punitive damages award was not before the Court in Miles, just loss of society and of future earnings. The Miles Court held only that “there is no recovery for loss of society in a general maritime action for the wrongful death of a Jones Act seaman.” But, the 9th Circuit concluded it was not apparent why barring damages for loss of society per Miles should also bar punitive damages.
The panel instead looked to the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend. “Whatever room might be left to support broadening Miles to cover punitive damages was cut off by the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend. The shipowner in Townsend argued that Miles barred punitive damages for willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. The Court noted that “[h]istorically, punitive damages have been available and awarded in general maritime actions.”
It found “that nothing in Miles or the Jones Act eliminates that availability. Unseaworthiness is a general maritime action long predating the Jones Act.”
So, in noting that the Townsend Court made this distinction when addressing maintenance and cure actions, the 9th Circuit panel in Batterton found:
“…there is no persuasive reason to distinguish maintenance and cure actions from unseaworthiness actions with respect to the damages awardable. The purposes of punitive damages, punishment and deterrence, apply equally to both of these general maritime causes of action. Nor are punitive damages compensation for a pecuniary or non-pecuniary ‘loss,’ as described in Miles. They are not compensation for loss at all.”
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
We work and practice law in the 5th Circuit, which provides our maritime law precedents for the states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. So, why should this decision in the 9th Circuit concern us?
The U.S. judicial system consists of 13 federal circuits and when these circuit courts reach different conclusions about an issue of federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court may step in and decide the law. This is so all areas of the country can then operate under the same law. General maritime law is federal common law and whether or not punitive damages should be available is an issue the Supreme Court may now take up with this split between the 5th and 9th Circuits.