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Article: US Supreme Court holds seaman are not entitled to punitive damages

25 June 2019

The Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision today in Dutra Group v Batterton, 588 US __ (2019) (attached on the right), holding (in a 6-3 decision) that seafarers are not entitled to punitive damages if the shipowner breaches its duty to provide a seaworthy ship. The seafarer is entitled to recover pecuniary losses only, the losses the seafarer may recover for negligence under the Jones Act.

In so doing the court reversed the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Batterton v Dutra Group, 880 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 2018) and aligned itself with the result reached by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in McBride v Estis Well Servs. LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2310 (2015). As a result, the court has resolved a split in the circuit courts of appeal and created a clear rule which governs all actions by seafarers against owners of ships.   


Background

The court (through Justice Alito, writing for the majority) begins with a reminder that courts sitting in admiralty cases proceed 'in the manner of a common law court' and continues with a historical overview of how the cause of action for unseaworthiness began in the courts outside the personal injury context and evolved into a remedy for personal injuries to seafarers based on strict liability of the shipowner for failing to provide a seaworthy ship. During this evolution, Congress became involved when it passed the Jones Act in 1920, providing a remedy to a seafarer injured by the negligence of the master or of a fellow crew member, a remedy which did not exist at common law.


Considerations

Guided by its decisions in Miles v Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990) and Atlantic Sounding Co v Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), the court considered first 'whether punitive damages have traditionally been awarded for claims of unseaworthiness and whether conformity with parallel statutory schemes would require such damages.' The court found that punitive damages had traditionally not been awarded in unseaworthiness cases and that allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness when they are not allowed for negligence under the Jones Act would be contrary to promoting conformity with parallel statutory schemes.


Comment

Finally, the court considered whether the court should consider itself 'compelled on policy grounds to allow punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims.' Since negligence cases under the Jones Act do not allow recovery of punitive damages -

'it would exceed our current role to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those Congress has provided in similar areas.'

In addition, the court was

'wary to depart from the practice under the Jones Act because a claim of unseaworthiness... serves as a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim.'

The court also noted that there are significant economic incentives prompting owners to ensure that their vessels are seaworthy and pointed out 'bizarre disparities in the law' if it held punitive damages were available to seafarers in unseaworthiness cases and not in Jones Act negligence cases.

The court also stated that allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases would: 

'discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen' and would 'frustrate another fundamental interest served by federal maritime jurisdiction: the protection of maritime commerce.'

The court recognized the special solicitude US courts have taken to the welfare of seafarers. But the court pointed out this solicitude arose when the common law placed restrictions on the rights of seafarers to recover for their injuries. It concluded:

'In light of these changes and of the roles now played by the Judiciary and the political branches in protecting sailors, the special solicitude to sailors has only a small role to play in contemporary maritime law.'

By resolving the split in decisions in the lower courts and by resolving it in favour of a bright line rule instead of a case by case analysis, the court’s holding will allow greater predictability to all concerned (plaintiffs, defendants, insurers, lawyers, and judges) and should, in principle, allow experienced lawyers to resolve cases fairly as well as sooner rather than later to the benefit of all, plaintiffs as well as defendants.