Citing “overwhelming historical evidence,” the U.S. Supreme Court has overruled a Ninth Circuit holding and ruled that the Jones Act does not entitle seamen to punitive damages when they are injured on a vessel found to be unseaworthy. The high court ruled 6-3 in the case, The Dutra Group v. Batterton.
“Allowing punitive damages would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the court.
He added that allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases could distract from any liability by the ship’s operator, and operators may be more culpable in unseaworthiness claims.
The Jones Act is the main U.S. law that provides compensation for injured seamen. It allows for two types of compensation. The first is “maintenance and cure,” which is essentially lost wages and medical care. The second is compensation for unseaworthiness, which means harm from a vessel that is not reasonably fit for its intended purpose. Unseaworthiness claims are sometimes more extensive than maintenance and cure claims.
In this case, as we discussed in March when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments, a seaman permanently injured his hand while working on a dredger. He filed a claim against his employer, the Dutra Group, for both maintenance and cure and unseaworthiness.
However, he further claimed that the unseaworthiness was caused by “willful and wanton misconduct” by the owner of the vessel. He then argued that such misconduct entitled him to punitive damages, which are intended to punish wrongdoers.
The Dutra Group argued that the Jones Act and the common maritime law do not authorize punitive damages in any case. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the seaman.
A battle of opposing precedents
The crux of the case hung on which of two prior cases the Supreme Court would rely on. The first was 1990’s Miles v. Apex Marine Corp, where the Supreme Court ruled that the Jones Act does not authorize any type of nonpecuniary damages, which includes punitive damages. However, Miles did not involve an unseaworthiness claim.
The other was 2009’s Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend. In that case, the Supreme Court relied on general maritime principles as opposed to the Jones Act itself — but the case did involve an unseaworthiness claim. The plaintiff seaman’s team argued that Townsend “carved a path for punitive damages in unseaworthiness.”
Majority of court points to Miles v. Apex Marine Corp.
Ultimately, the court’s five conservative justices and Justice Elena Kagan decided that Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. was the appropriate precedent in this case. Not only does it exclude nonpecuniary damages in Jones Act cases, but it also stands for the propositions that uniformity should be promoted in maritime law and that courts should defer to statutes governing maritime law.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Ginsburg pointed out that the Jones Act authorizes punitive damages in the case of a “willful and wanton breach of the duty to provide maintenance and cure.” With the majority’s ruling in this case, punitive damages will not be available in willful and wanton breaches of the duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.