On June 24, 2019 the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Dutra Group v. Batterton, 139 S.Ct. 2275 588 U.S. _______ (2019).  The case involved a crewmember who sued his maritime employer due to a physical injury suffered aboard the employer’s vessel. 

The crewmember sued the employer asserting a variety of claims, including a claim for punitive damages due to unseaworthiness.

The Supreme Court decided that punitive damages are not allowable on unseaworthiness claims. 

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court noted that when exercising jurisdiction over maritime cases the United States Constitution requires that the Court do so as a common law court.  When exercising its common law authority, the Court pointed out that it should look to legislative enactments for policy guidance and that it may depart from policy found in statutory provisions in discrete instances, based on long established precedent or history, keeping in mind Congress’s pursuit of uniformity in the maritime field. 

The Court observed that it had considered two similar questions in the past involving other maritime claims.

In Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990) the Supreme Court ruled that, under general maritime law, recovery for seamen wrongful death actions are limited to pecuniary damages.

In the case of Atlantic Sounding Co., v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), the Court examined a long-established history of cases to decide that punitive damages are not categorically barred as part of an award for maintenance and cure, provided that some elements are present (i.e. willful, wanton, or wrongful denial of a maintenance and cure claim).

As it concerns a claim based on unseaworthiness, however, the Court concluded that there was no historical basis to allow punitive damages.

The Court also observed that allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would create inconsistency, for instance, in the limited remedy for pecuniary damages allowed to the estate of a deceased seaman under Miles; whereas, an injured seaman could then claim punitive damages based on unseaworthiness if injured aboard a vessel.  The Court considered that another disparity could occur given the fact that unseaworthiness claims are against the owner of the vessel. There could be instances where the ship owner could be liable for punitive damages, while a ship master or ship operator could have more fault and be only liable for the damages allowed under the Jones Act. 

Another consideration was the fact that, since noncompensatory damages are not part of the civil law tradition and, therefore, not available in such countries, allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would place American shippers at a considerable competitive disadvantage. The Court pointed out that it could also discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen.

Interestingly, the plaintiff in Dutra Group also argued that the doctrine that encouraged a special solicitude for the welfare of seamen should have weighed in favor of allowing plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. The Court rejected the argument. The Court pointed out that even though seamen today face hardships not encountered by persons employed on land, they are not as isolated or dependent on the ship’s master as their predecessors from the age of sail. The Court went on to state that, because of these changes, and the roles now played by the judicial and political branches in protecting seamen, the special solicitude doctrine has only a small role to play in contemporary maritime law.

Jiménez, Graffam & Lausell provides legal advice and defense to its clients in connection to maritime matters, including seaman personal injury claims.  If you have any doubts or need additional information on the Supreme Court decision in Dutra Group, or any other maritime matters, please feel free to contact us.