SCOTUS Precludes Punitive Damages for an Unseaworthiness Claim
In Dutra v. Batterton, No. 18-266, the Supreme Court of the United States, on June 24, 2019, determined that punitive damages are not allowed for injured vessel crew members seeking remedies for vessel unseaworthiness. In addressing a split between the Ninth Circuit on one hand and the First, Fifth, and Eleventh Circuits on the other hand, the Supreme Court resolved the issue by applying its previous decisions in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404. In Miles, the Supreme Court indicated that it should look primarily to legislative enactments for policy guidance, recognizing that it may supplement these statutory remedies, where doing so would achieve uniform vindication. In Atlantic Sounding, it allowed recovery for punitive damages, but justified its departure from the statutory remedial scheme based upon the established history of awarding punitive damages for certain maritime torts, including maintenance and cure. In accordance with these decisions, the Supreme Court considered whether punitive damages have traditionally been awarded for claims of unseaworthiness, whether conformity with parallel statutory schemes would require such damages, and finally, whether the Supreme Court was compelled on policy grounds to allow punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims.
In reviewing the historical application of punitive damages for the breach of the duty of seaworthiness, the court could find no underlying support for the application of punitive damages. Furthermore, the court determined it could not sanction a novel remedy unless it was required to maintain uniformity with Congress’s clearly expressed policies. In examining the Jones Act, it found no such expressed policy. Finally, it could find no other policy reasons for justifying the application of punitive damages in this context. Continuing, the court pointed out a bizarre disparity that would occur if punitive damages were allowed. A mariner could then make a claim for punitive damages if he was injured aboard a vessel, but his estate would lose the right to seek punitive damages under Miles if he died from his injuries. Additionally, in weighing the international aspects of the application of punitive damages, in an unseaworthy context, it determined that to do so would create significant competitive disadvantages for American shippers.
Doug Matthews has practiced law in New Orleans for 35 years and concentrates on maritime trial practice as defense counsel.