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. Batterton alleges this was an unseaworthy condition causing his injuries, for which the owner is strictly liable under federal admiralty law. He seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

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Historically, maritime law was largely judge-made, protecting seamen as “wards of the admiralty,” because they led “miserable lives.” Unlike the common law, many admiralty cases in the Supreme Court are named for the ship involved, because in true maritime claims the ship is a defendant in the court action. In The Resolute (1897), named for the ship involved, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution’s grant of admiralty jurisdiction includes “the power to dispose of a case as justice may require.”

Before any federal legislation on maritime personal injuries, the law of admiralty created two remedies for seamen, found in no other field of law. The first, arising in the 12th and 13th centuries, is “maintenance and cure,” requiring a ship’s master to provide food, lodging, and medical services to a seaman injured while serving the ship – a sort of medieval worker’s compensation. The second, “much more recent development,” is a claim for unseaworthiness, which grew out of causes of action unrelated to personal injury. For example, a seaman could collect his wages even if he refused to board an unseaworthy ship. The Cyrus (Pa. 1789). Unseaworthiness of the vessel was held to be a defense to criminal charges of refusal to obey the master’s orders. And a claim of unseaworthiness could be asserted by a shipper for cargo damage, or by an insurer to deny coverage when the poor condition of the ship resulted in damage to or loss of the cargo. The Caledonia (U.S. 1895).

In 1903, the Supreme Court decided The Osceola, concluding that “the vessel and her owner are liable to an indemnity for injuries received by seamen in consequence of the unseaworthiness of the ship.” Lower court rulings put limitations on this landmark decision, holding that there would be no recovery based on negligence that does not render the vessel unseaworthy, and requiring a seaman to show that the owner of a vessel had failed to exercise due diligence in ensuring the ship was seaworthy condition.

In 1920 Congress passed the Jones Act, which enables an injured seaman to sue for damages resulting from the negligence of the owner, master or crew of the vessel. The Act provides recovery for compensatory damages, but is silent on punitive damages. Importantly, the seaman was granted a jury trial under the Act, something not available in an unseaworthiness claim. It became common for injured seamen to include counts for negligence under the Jones Act, and unseaworthiness claims under the general maritime law. The latter provides for strict liability without proof of negligence. The former, the Jones Act, provides a jury trial.

Traditionally, maritime law does not provide for punitive damages in any kind of claim. That history controlled the Court’s decision in this case: “Punitive damages are not a traditional remedy for unseaworthiness. The [cases] promoting uniformity in maritime law . . . [prevent] us from recognizing a new entitlement to punitive damages where none previously existed. We hold that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness.” Thus, stare decisis continues in the ancient and venerable field of maritime law.

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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