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Supreme Court: No Punitive Damages for Seafarer Injury Claims

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By The Maritime Executive 2019-06-25 17:02:11

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a seafarer who sought punitive damages from his employer  after a hatch blew open and injured his hand, finding that punitive damages - that is, extra money awarded to the plaintiff as an additional punishment for the defendant - are not available under an unseaworthiness claim. 

Under the general maritime law of unseaworthiness, a seafarer who is injured due an unseaworthy condition may state a claim against the vessel and its owner for damages due to the injury, according to leading maritime law firm Winston & Strawn. The shipowner is liable for the harm caused by an unseaworthy condition on the vessel, which means that the injured seafarer does not have to prove that the owner was negligent.

The plaintiff, Christopher Batterton, was working aboard a vessel owned by the Dutra Group when a compartment was overpressurized, blowing open a watertight door open and crushing his hand against a bulkhead. He sued, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages, and both the trial court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor. The Supreme Court overturned those decisions Monday. 

"A plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness," ruled Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority. "Unseaworthiness in its current strict-liability form is this Court’s own invention and came after passage of the Jones Act, and a claim of unseaworthiness serves as a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim. It would, therefore, exceed the Court’s objectives of pursuing policies found in congressional enactments and promoting uniformity between maritime statutory law and maritime common law to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those provided by Congress in similar areas." 

Alito noted that courts have previously ruled against punitive damages for cases involving the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) - which contains employee rights that were later incorporated into the Jones Act - and for the Jones Act itself. He also pointed out that it would be inconsistent to allow a seafarer to sue the ship owner for punitive damages while prohibiting the same suit against the ship operator, who may bear greater responsibility but is protected against punitive damage claims in injury cases.

Finally, Alito ruled, "allowing punitive damages would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen." Evan Tager, a partner with Mayer Brown's Supreme Court and appellate practice, said that this element of the decision is significant, as the court recognized that ruling for Batterton would have hampered U.S. shipowners' competitiveness "vis-à-vis vessel owners from other countries, the vast majority of which do not allow punitive damages."

In a side note, Alito's ruling appears to move away from the court's traditionally protective stance in favor of seafarers: His opinion describes the "special solicitude for the welfare of seamen" found in admiralty case law as a "paternalistic" product of 19th century court rulings. "A minor point, but one that may be troubling to maritime plaintiffs’ attorneys in the future, is the Court’s apparent rejection of the traditional treatment of seafarers as the 'wards of admiralty,'" Winston & Strawn advised. 

Admiralty lawyer John Kimball of Blank Rome also noted that the new ruling applies to a large docket of cases regarding asbestos exposure. "Although punitive damages were rarely awarded even before [Dutra v. Batterton], there are thousands of pending asbestos cases against ship owners in which the threat of being held liable for punitive damages has now been removed," Kimball said. 

Attorney Grady Hurley of Jones Walker's maritime group added that the court's decision signals a new deference to the will of Congress when interpreting maritime law. "The significance of this decision is the expressed philosophy of the solid majority which considered its power to fashion maritime common law remedies . . . in light of Congressional intent. It held that when exercising its inherent common law authority it should look primarily to legislative enactments for policy guidance in achieving uniformity," he said.