July 11, 2019, Trial News | The American Association For Justice Archive

July 11, 2019, Trial News

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Injured seamen not entitled to punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims, SCOTUS rules

Kate Halloran

photo of the Supreme Court

Punitive damages are not available in maritime unseaworthiness claims, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. The Court held that punitive damages were not traditionally available in common law for unseaworthiness claims and that it could not extend such damages to unseaworthiness claims since they also are not available under the Jones Act.

Punitive damages are not available in maritime unseaworthiness claims, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. The Court held that punitive damages were not traditionally available in common law for unseaworthiness claims and that it could not extend such damages to unseaworthiness claims since they also are not available under the Jones Act. (Dutra Grp. v. Batterton, 2019 WL 2570621 (U.S. June 24, 2019).)

Christopher Batterton, a deckhand and crew member for defendant Dutra Group, was injured when a hatch on one of the vessels blew open, crushing his left hand between the hatch and the bulkhead, causing a permanent disability. Batterton sued Dutra Group, the vessel’s owner and operator, alleging negligence, unseaworthiness (failure to exercise due diligence to ensure the vessel is in a seaworthy condition), and he sought maintenance and cure (daily living expenses and medical costs) and unearned wages. He also sought compensatory and punitive damages. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to strike the punitive damages claim. But it certified an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed. The Court granted the defendant’s petition for certiorari to resolve a circuit split on whether punitive damages are available for these claims.

At oral arguments in March, the plaintiff contended that a Ninth Circuit case allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims controlled, as Trial News previously reported. The defendant countered that Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. (498 U.S. 19 (1990)) precludes a claim for nonpecuniary damages in unseaworthiness claims and that this overruled the Ninth Circuit precedent.

The Court, with Justice Samuel Alito writing for the majority, agreed with the defendant, holding that Miles and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend (557 U.S. 404 (2009)) control its decision. Delving into the history of general maritime claims, the Court explained that its common law jurisdiction to protect injured seamen traditionally rested on two claims: maintenance and cure and unseaworthiness, which originally did not involve a personal injury but rather protected a seaman’s right to collect wages if he refused to serve on an unseaworthy vessel. Later, courts began applying unseaworthiness to personal injury claims, and the Court limited these claims to ones of strict liability to a vessel’s owner and not the negligence of any operator or crew. The owner’s duty to provide a seaworthy vessel was independent of its Jones Act duty to exercise reasonable care.

Miles involved a wrongful death claim under general maritime law, and the Court held that a plaintiff’s estate could not recover nonpecuniary damages. Miles instructs that the Court “should look primarily to . . . legislative enactments for policy guidance” and that statutory remedies could be supplemented to “achieve the uniform vindication” of the policies advanced by the statute.

In Atlantic Sounding, the Court allowed punitive damages but cabined it to being in line with the statutory remedies and the historical availability of punitive damages for certain maritime torts, such as maintenance and cure.

In analyzing Batterton’s claim, the Court focused on whether courts have historically awarded punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims, whether conformity with the Jones Act would require punitive damages, and whether policy grounds exist for allowing punitive damages in these cases.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s reliance on case law to show the historical availability of punitive damages, noting that the damages discussed in the offered cases were not related to unseaworthiness claims. Finding that punitive damages would be a “novel remedy” for unseaworthiness claims, the Court then considered whether allowing punitive damages would be “required to maintain uniformity with Congress’s clearly expressed policies”—namely, the Jones Act. The Jones Act incorporated provisions from the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) related to recovery, and the Court explained that FELA case law repeatedly has held that punitive damages are not available. Jones Act case law has followed a similar track, and under Miles’s instruction to maintain uniformity between the common law and statutes, the Court was not persuaded to reconsider its interpretation of the Jones Act.

The Court also did not find the plaintiff’s argument that punitive damages should be allowed as a policy matter persuasive. Because Congress has not provided that remedy for similar claims, the Court refused to do so. Explaining that because the strict liability nature of unseaworthiness claims is the result of case law, the Court could not expand the remedies available for those claims when Congress has not imposed punitive damages for negligence-based claims. The Court also stated that an unseaworthiness claim is “a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim” and therefore, to maintain uniformity between the maritime common law and statutory law, which does not provide for punitive damages, it would defer to the act. The Court also expressed concern about “bizarre disparities” in the law if punitive damages were allowed, arguing that while a seaman could make a punitive damages claim for an injury, his estate could not if he died from those injuries. The Court also noted that because an unseaworthiness claim is against the ship’s owner, the owner and not the operator who likely had more control of the vessel would be liable for punitive damages.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, noted that another Supreme Court case, Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (554 U.S. 471 (2008)), held that punitive damages typically are available in maritime cases and that the Court’s holding in Batterton carves out unseaworthiness claims as an exception. The dissent also supported Atlantic Sounding as the controlling precedent here but noted that the Court incorrectly applied that opinion’s reasoning to the immediate case to limit the availability of punitive damages, and it rejected the majority’s conflation of unseaworthiness claims with Jones Act negligence. “The persistent differences between unseaworthiness claims and Jones Act claims weigh against inserting into general maritime law damages limitations that may be applicable to Jones Act suits,” Ginsburg wrote.

AAJ Senior Associate General Counsel Jeffrey White, who coauthored AAJ’s amicus brief in support of the plaintiff, said, “Batterton was a sad surprise in several ways. Justice Thomas based his majority opinion in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend on his historical analysis that ‘punitive damages have been available and awarded in general maritime actions, including some in maintenance and cure.’ The fact that Thomas acquiesced in the evisceration of his prior decision is puzzling.”

White also pointed out Alito’s—and the Court’s—changing stance. “Alito dissented in Atlantic Sounding. But his majority opinion in Batterton now states that general maritime law is irrelevant; there must be reported decisions specifically based on unseaworthiness,” he said. “Also, Justice Alito dismissed the two-century old ‘special solicitude’ of the court for seamen as ‘wards of the admiralty.’ Only three months ago, Justice Kavanaugh cited this special solicitude as a supporting rationale in his decision to uphold expansive maritime law liability in Air & Liquid Systems v DeVries. One encouraging aspect would appear to be that, by focusing narrowly on unseaworthiness actions, Alito has written an opinion that does not undermine the availability of punitive damages in other types of cases, including maintenance and cure, passenger injuries, intentional torts, or damage to cargo.” San Pedro, Calif., attorney Preston Easley, who represented the plaintiff, reiterated that “a seaman can still get punitive damages for a failure to pay maintenance and cure (lodging and medical treatment).”

Professor Michael Sturley of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, an expert in maritime law, explained that “it is too soon to know the real significance of the Batterton case and the impact it will have on plaintiffs. That will depend on how lower courts apply it.  Batterton could be limited to prohibiting punitive damages under FELA, the Jones Act, and the unseaworthiness doctrine. Or it could become a weapon that defendants use to deny all plaintiffs a wide range of traditional remedies in both maritime and non-maritime contexts.”