The Witch Is Dead… For the Most Part. Punitive Damages and Maritime Claims
By Jay A. Hamad, Esq. & Daniel G. McDermott, Esq.*
The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued an opinion in The Dutra Grp. v. Batterton, 139 S. Ct. 2275 (2019), holding that a mariner may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. The Court also found that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages under the Jones Act. However, the Court did acknowledge that a plaintiff may recover punitive damage on a claim of failure to provide maintenance and cure. See also Atl. Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).
The Court recently agreed to hear a case which questioned whether a mariner may recover punitive damages on a claim that he was injured as a result of the unseaworthy condition of the vessel. Due to a conflict among the circuits, the Ninth Circuit allowing punitive damages in such cases and the First and Fifth Circuits not permitting such relief, the issue was ripe for review.
The Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s practice of granting punitive damages based on unseaworthy conditions aboard a vessel. The case arose when a deckhand, Christopher Batterton, working on a scow off the coast of California, suffered a hand injury after a hatch blew open due to pressure build-up in a compartment. The vessel was owned and operated by the Dutra Group. Batterton brought suit against the Dutra Group seeking general and punitive damages based upon claims of Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure.
The Dutra Group moved to strike Batteron’s punitive damages claim, asserting that such claims are not available for unseaworthiness claims. Both the District Court and Ninth Circuit denied Dutra’s motion. The Court granted certiorari and rendered its decision in The Dutra Group v. Batterton, 139 S.Ct. 2275 (2019).
Justice Samuel Alito relied upon the absence of a “historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions” and sought “to promote uniformity with the way Courts have applied parallel statutory causes of action.” Two seemingly different results obtained in recent SCOTUS decisions were addressed. In Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), the Court permitted punitive damages in a case where it found the vessel operator willfully and wantonly withheld maintenance and cure payments to an injured mariner based upon the contractual nature of the mariner’s employment rather than the vessel owners’ and/or operators’ negligence. However, in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp, 498 U.S. 19 (1990), the Court, in addressing a wrongful death claim under general maritime law, had determined that recovery was limited to pecuniary damages. The Court based its holding, in part, upon the lack of a historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions. It also reasoned that it was required to promote uniformity in the way courts apply parallel statutory causes of action, noting the similarity of remedies and the potential overlapping of the breadth of the Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims. In this regard, the Jones Act was adopted from FELA, and federal courts of appeal have unanimously held that punitive damages are not available under FELA. Miller v. American President Hines, Ltd, 989 F. 2d 1450 (6th Cir. 1993).
Reconciling Miles and Atlantic Sounding by observing that, in Atlantic Sounding, the imposition of punitive damages was justified given the long history of awarding punitive damages for certain maritime torts, while remarking in Miles that punitive damages were not permitted due to policies served by legislative enactments relating to maritime wrongful death actions, the Court held that if the operator of a vessel cannot be punished for punitive damages under the Jones Act, then it logically follows that the owner of a vessel should not be punished with punitive damages for a claim of unseaworthiness. Since the owner has a non-delegable duty to keep the vessel seaworthy, and oftentimes the owner is not the operator of the vessel, it would be inequitable to punish a vessel owner for the upkeep and operation of the vessel in the hands of another who would not be subjected to such a punitive remedy.
The Supreme Court concluded:
Punitive damages are not a traditional remedy for unseaworthiness. The rule of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp promoting uniformity in maritime law and deference to the policies expressed in the statutes governing maritime law prevents us from recognizing a new entitlement to punitive damages where none previously existed. We hold that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages in a claim of unseaworthiness.
The Court further buttressed its holding by looking at the impact of awarding punitive damages on the United States economy. The Court predicted that awarding punitive damages would cause American shippers to experience significant competitive disadvantages. It would also discourage foreign-owned vessels from jurisdictions that typically forbid awards of punitive damages.
The Dutra Group ruling applies to a vast amount of asbestos exposure cases in the maritime field. There are thousands of pending asbestos cases against shipowners in which the threat of punitive damages has now been removed.
Despite this ruling, the Court did hold that a mariner may still seek punitive damages for maintenance and cure against shipowners and operators. Maintenance and cure requires a shipmaster to provide food, lodging and medical services to a sailor injured while serving aboard a ship. The policy behind potentially awarding punitive damages for maintenance and cure is to punish the owner based on exploiting the economic incentive for dumping an injured seaman in a port and abandoning him to his fate. Maintenance and cure may also be brought against the vessel operators.
Based on the Dutra Group case, mariners/plaintiffs are unequivocally unable to pursue punitive damages as it relates to unseaworthiness and Jones Act claims. It is worth noting that the Court still permits punitive damages under maintenance and cure. It is imperative to retain counsel who is specialized in the maritime industry in order to protect owners and operators of vessels from potential liability.
*Jay is a shareholder and co-chair of our Maritime Practice Group and a Proctor member of the Maritime Law Association. He can be reached at 212.376.6424 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan is a senior counsel and chair of the Maritime Practice Group. Dan is a former chair of the Uniformity of U.S. Laws for the MLA and is president and chair of the Marine and Insurance Claims Association. He can be reached at 212.376.6432 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 25, No. 3, September 2019. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2019 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.