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Maritime Update: U.S. Supreme Court to Review Whether a Seaman Can Recover Punitive Damages for an Unseaworthy Condition

Bill Schwartz - 

On Friday, December 7, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ to review whether a remedy for punitive damages exists for seamen who are injured or killed at work because of a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. In The Dutra Group v. Batterton matter, appealed to the Supreme Court, the justices agreed to consider whether punitive damages may be awarded under this general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.

By way of background, in the The Dutra Group v. Batterton case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that such punitive damages are available to a seaman in a personal injury suit based on an alleged breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. This decision was in direct conflict with a recent decision of the en banc Fifth Circuit, which held that punitive damages are not available in unseaworthiness cases. McBride v. Estis Well Serv., LLC, 768 F.3d 382, 388-391 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 2310 (2015).

The disagreement between the Fifth and Ninth Circuits turns largely on how to reconcile the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).

In Miles, the Court unanimously held that damages for loss of society and lost future income may not be awarded in an unseaworthiness action under general maritime law. The Supreme Court stressed that Congress did not authorize either form of damages in negligence actions under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104, which provides remedies for seamen injured or killed in the course of their employment as a result of the employer’s negligence. The Miles Court explained that respect for Congress’ preeminent role in maritime law required that the scope of recovery under the judge-made action for unseaworthiness – which emerged in its current form as a strict liability claim in the mid-twentieth century – be no more expansive than under the remedies Congress had authorized for negligence in the Jones Act.

But in Townsend, a closely divided Court held that punitive damages may be awarded in claims based on the separate general maritime doctrine of maintenance and cure. The Townsend Court stressed that “[t]he reasoning of Miles remains sound.” Nonetheless, the Court concluded that Miles did not control the scope of remedies for maintenance and cure, which (unlike unseaworthiness) was “well established” as a claim before the Jones Act was enacted, and which has “different origins” from and is “independent” of unseaworthiness. The Townsend Court also emphasized that there was a “common-law tradition of punitive damages” in the maritime context before the Jones Act was enacted, and it found “no evidence that claims for maintenance and cure were excluded from this general admiralty rule.”

In the decision below in Batterton, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Townsend rather than Miles governs punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims. Miles, according to the court, precludes only nonpecuniary damages in unseaworthiness actions. But, the court reasoned punitive damages are neither pecuniary nor nonpecuniary, and so Miles does not speak to the availability of punitive damages.

By contrast, the Fifth Circuit in McBride concluded that punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims are precluded by the reasoning of Miles, which limited damages in unseaworthiness claims to those available for negligence under the Jones Act (which does not authorize punitive damages), and that Townsend, which concerns the distinct claim for maintenance and cure, is irrelevant to unseaworthiness actions.

It is likely this irreconcilable divide between these two appeals courts caused the Supreme Court to grant the writ and to hear this case.

We anticipate the argument will be this Spring and the decision sometime in 2019.

If you have any questions regarding this maritime matter, please contact Bill Schwartz at (504) 569-2900 or wschwartz@bhbmlaw.com.


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