The United States Supreme Court recently granted a writ of certiorari in Batterton v. Dutra Group. In Batterton, the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit determined that a Jones Act seaman could assert a claim for punitive damages for unseaworthiness.
Plaintiff Christopher Batterton was a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by Dutra. While Batterton was working on the vessel, a hatch cover blew open and crushed his left hand. Pressurized air was being pumped into a compartment below the hatch cover, and the vessel allegedly lacked an exhaust mechanism to relieve the pressure when it got too high. The lack of a mechanism for exhausting the pressurized air made the vessel unseaworthy and caused permanent disability and other damages to Batterton according to the allegations in the suit.
The Lower Courts’ Rulings
The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages for unseaworthiness on the basis that such claim was not permitted. The district court denied the motion. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court finding that a claim for punitive damages could be asserted for unseaworthiness. The Ninth Circuit made no determination on whether the claim for unseaworthiness or the claim for punitive damages for unseaworthiness would succeed at trial but merely confirmed that such cause of action was available.
The Circuit Split
The Ninth Circuit noted that it had already answered the question of whether punitive damages were an available remedy for unseaworthiness claims in Evich v. Morris, finding that such cause of action was available. The question was whether the Supreme Court had implicitly overruled Evich in Miles v. Apex in which the Supreme Court held that loss of society damages are unavailable under the general maritime law. The Ninth Circuit also noted that the Supreme Court had ruled in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, that punitive damages were available for willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure. The Ninth Circuit believed that Townsend was a broad ruling with its conclusion that: “Historically, punitive damages have been available and awarded in general maritime actions, including some in maintenance and cure.”
The question before the Ninth Circuit was whether it should follow the ruling of the Fifth Circuit en banc in McBride v. Estis Well Service, which had held that “punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses” and therefore could not be recovered under the Jones Act or general maritime law.
It is clear that the decision of the Ninth Circuit in Batterton and the decision of the en banc Fifth Circuit in McBride are irreconcilable. The United States Supreme Court will have to decide which is correct on the issue of whether a Jones Act seaman can assert a claim for punitive damages in conjunction with a claim for unseaworthiness. Hoping that the Supreme Court will agree with the Ninth Circuit, Jones Act seaman plaintiffs are already asserting such claims.
Employers of Jones Act seamen and their insurers will be hoping that the Supreme Court follows the ruling of the Fifth Circuit in McBride and overrules the Ninth Circuit in Batterton. A ruling from the Supreme Court is expected in mid-2019.