Supreme Court: Punitive damages not available in seaman's unseaworthiness claim

by Matthew H. Ammerman on June 24th, 2019

A flux capacitor is the made-up time travel device used in the Back to the Future movie.

In Dutra Group v. Batterton, the U.S. Supreme Court used its legal flux capacitor to examine century-old cases to determine punitive damages were not traditionally available in a seaman’s unseaworthiness claim. And a seaman’s sister personal-injury claim of negligence under the Jones Act does not allow a claim for punitive damages either. Therefore, in the interest of historical and jurisprudential uniformity, a seaman may not recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness under general maritime law.

The Court used the same framework ten years ago in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend to decide that punitive damages were available to an injured seaman when an employer willfully and wantonly withheld maintenance and cure.

Writing for a 6-3 majority in Batterton, however, Justice Alito concludes there is not a historical basis for punitive damages in an unseaworthiness claim (in which the seaman alleges the ship was not reasonably fit for its intended use). And because Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness claims typically arise out of the same incident, allowing punitive damages in one claim and not the other is inconsistent with the Court’s precedent to make a “uniform rule applicable to all actions” for the same injury to a seaman. Batterton, 588 U.S. ___; Slip Op. at *15, citing Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U. S. 19, 33 (1990).

Therefore, a seaman can seek punitive damages for his employer’s willful or wanton refusal to pay maintenance and cure. But punitive damages are not available for a seaman’s claims for negligence of his employer or unseaworthiness against the vessel.

Dutra Group v. Batterton, 588 U. S. ____ (June 24, 2019).
opinion here:

Posted in Seamen    Tagged with seaman, punitive damages, batterton



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