ALERT: Supreme Court Rejects Seamen’s Claims for Punitive Damages Under General Maritime Law, Resolving Fifth and Ninth Circuit Split

The Supreme Court of the United States, on writ of certiorari in Dutra Group v. Christopher Batterton, 588 U.S. ___ (2019), has resolved a circuit split between the Fifth and Ninth Circuits regarding whether a seaman can recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims under general maritime law (see previous blog post discussing the split here). The Supreme Court held that a seaman cannot recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims, as this would provide “novel” remedies inconsistent with congressional policy as iterated in the Jones Act (as explained in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990)), would frustrate uniformity under the Jones Act and general maritime law, and would be inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s prior decision in Miles.

The Supreme Court also reasoned that allowing recovery of punitive damages would result in “bizarre” disparities in the law, including:

(1) allowing a seaman to make a claim for punitive damages for injuries sustained on a vessel despite his estate’s inability to do so if he died from his injuries (due to the Miles Court’s limitation on compensatory damages, and barring recovery of non-pecuniary damages such as punitive damage, in wrongful death actions); and

(2) exposing a vessel owner to liabilities for punitive damages despite the inability (per the Jones Act) to claim punitive damages against a vessel’s more culpable vessel operator. It would also put American shippers at a disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing Americans out of fear of exposure to punitive damages.

Accordingly, other than for willful and wanton refusal of maintenance and cure (as provided for in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009)), Jones Act seamen cannot recover punitive damages.

UPDATE: An updated blog posting with a more complete analysis of this landmark decision can be found here.