Does Admiralty Law Permit Punitive Damages in a Seaman’s Injury Claim Based on Unseaworthiness?

The Supreme Court rules that it does not, in Dutra Group v. Batterton, decided on June 24, 2019.

“This case asks whether a mariner may recover punitive damages on a claim that he was injured as a result of the unseaworthy condition of the vessel.” With that introduction, Justice Alito began a fascinating history of maritime personal injury claims on behalf of merchant seamen. In maritime and admiralty cases, the federal courts sitting as courts of admiralty “proceed in the manner of a common law court,” as instructed by the Constitution. In Batterton, the Court exercised its jurisdiction to decide that punitive damages are not available in a mariner’s personal injury claim based upon unseaworthiness of the vessel.

Christopher Batterton worked as a deckhand on vessels owned by Dutra Group. His hand was injured when it was caught between a bulkhead and a hatch that blew off as a result of unventilated air accumulating and pressurizing with the compartment.

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Supreme Court Resolves Maritime Product Duty-to-Warn Issue

The United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the Maritime Law, a unique and large body of federal common law, tempered by any controlling Congressional enactments. So, in recently decided Air & Liquid Sys. Corp. v. DeVries, the Court addressed the scope of the duty of a marine product manufacturer to warn of a potential harm from a part that is required to be incorporated into its product. Here, the part to be added contained asbestos, and it allegedly led to the deaths of two Navy sailors. Their families sued the manufacturer of pumps, blowers, and turbines, but not the manufacturer of the asbestos-containing added part that actually caused the harm. The Supreme Court sided with the families.

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