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In a long-awaited 6-3 holding, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Dutra Group v. Batterton, held that seamen are not entitled to pursue a claim for punitive damages in conjunction with a claim for unseaworthiness. The holding will be a relief to ship owners as a contrary result could have exposed them to claims for punitive damages, which may not have been insured.

Vessel owners and the insurers (to the extent they provide coverage for punitive damages) will be relieved by the Supreme Court’s holding.

As of now, the only exposure for punitive damages is for willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure to an injured seaman. The Supreme Court’s clear ruling that “punitive damages are not a traditional remedy for unseaworthiness” limits the potential exposure in claims by injured seamen.

The Supreme Court Ruling

The Supreme Court noted that its resolution of the question of whether a seaman could assert a claim for punitive damages for unseaworthiness was governed by Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990) and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, U.S. 404 (2009).

In Miles, the Supreme Court had held that an injured seamen could not recover non-pecuniary damages, such as loss of society. Miles further established that the court “should look primarily to…. Legislative enactments for policy guidance, while recognizing that we may supplement these statutory remedies where doing so would achieve uniform vindication of the policies served by these statutes.”

In Atlantic Sounding, the Supreme Court had held that punitive damages might be awarded in certain circumstances where the seaman’s employer failed to pay maintenance and cure.

As an initial matter, the Supreme Court held that the “overwhelming historical evidence” suggested that punitive damages were not available. Having so concluded, the Supreme Court stated that “we cannot sanction a novel remedy here unless it is required to maintain uniformity with Congress’s clearly expressed policies.” The Supreme Court found it did not.

Batterton argued that punitive damages were justified as a regulatory measure. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, noting that a ship owner already had an incentive to try and ensure that his vessel was seaworthy.

Finally, the Supreme Court noted that allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would “create bizarre disparities in the law.” Specifically, due to the holding in Miles, which limited recovery to compensatory damages in wrongful-death actions, a mariner could make a claim for punitive damages if he was injured aboard a ship, but his estate would lose the right to seek punitive damages if he died from his injuries.

Furthermore, because unseaworthiness claims run against the owner of the vessel, the ship’s owner could be liable for punitive damages while the master or operator of the vessel – who has more control over onboard conditions and is best positioned to minimize risk – would not be liable for such damages under the Jones Act.

The Lawsuit

Plaintiff Christopher Batterton sued Dutra asserting a variety of claims, including negligence, unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and unearned wages. He sought to recover general and punitive damages.

Dutra moved to strike Batterton’s claim for punitive damages, arguing that they are not available on claims for unseaworthiness. The district court denied Dutra’s motion and this was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This was in direct conflict with the Fifth Circuit’s en banc holding in McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir, 2014).