This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about whether maritime employers can be held liable for punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims under the Jones Act, the law that authorizes compensation for injured maritime workers. The answer will depend on some relatively esoteric arguments involving whether the court should defer to one precedent or another.
Did maritime law before the Jones act allow punitive damages, which are meant to punish wrongdoing? Does the Jones Act itself authorize punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases?
Does maritime law authorize punitive damages in cases of misconduct?
The case, The Dutra Group v. Batterton, involves a seaman who allegedly injured his hand while working on a dredge vessel. He sued his employer, The Dutra Group, for compensation. Under the Jones Act, two types of compensation are offered to injured maritime workers: “Maintenance and cure” and unseaworthiness claims.
Maintenance and cure is relatively straightforward. It is a limited remedy that provides food, lodging and medical treatment to the injured seaman until he or she reaches the fullest cure possible.
An unseaworthiness claim is a personal injury claim brought against the vessel owner when negligence is alleged. It is meant to compensate maritime workers when their injuries resulted from a condition rendering the vessel not reasonably fit for its intended purpose. It can also be used in injury and death cases when the harm is attributable to the employer. Unseaworthiness claims provide different and sometimes greater compensation than maintenance and cure.
In this case, the injured worker claimed that the vessel’s unseaworthiness was the result of “willful and wanton misconduct” by the vessel owner. He argues that this misconduct justifies punitive damages, which are meant to punish wrongdoers. The Dutra Group, on the other hand, argued that punitive damages are never available in Jones Act unseaworthiness cases.
Which Supreme Court case applies?
The two sides relied on seemingly opposing precedents as they battled it out before the high court. In Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. in 1990, the Supreme Court ruled in a Jones Act survival action that the Act did not authorize nonpecuniary damages, which would presumably include punitive damages.
In 2009’s Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, however, the Supreme Court ruled for punitive damages in a case decided under general maritime principles rather than the Jones Act. However, Townsend involved a maintenance and cure claim.
Does Miles mean that punitive damages are never allowed in Jones Act unseaworthiness claims? Or does Townsend imply that pre-Jones Act principles authorize punitive damages when there has been an allegation misconduct?
To an injured person, it must seem that every condition that leads to injury must be the result of negligence. If negligence is established, it must feel that punishment is in order.
However, punitive damages have not traditionally been allowed in maritime cases. Will the court carve out a punishment regime where none was there before?