In a April 2019 article in Professional Mariner, we discussed the probabilities of the U.S. Supreme Court allowing a Jones Act seaman to seek punitive damages for personal injuries caused by an unseaworthy condition under the pending case of Dutra Group v. Batterton (“Supreme Court to revisit punitive damage ‘ping-pong’ in maritime claims,” PM #233). On June 24, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a 6-3 majority, held that a Jones Act seaman could not seek punitive damages for personal injuries caused by an unseaworthy vessel.
The decision and its dissent reflected the philosophical tensions on the court concerning its authority to create common-law remedies as a court of equity while maintaining uniformity consistent with congressional enactments. The decision creates uniformity and provides certainty for vessel owners and operators.
Alito’s decision provides a historic hornbook case law review of unseaworthiness and a civics lesson on when an admiralty court should fashion a common-law remedy.
Historical context and punitive damages
The Supreme Court has previously recognized that punitive damages are available under the general maritime law arising from a vessel grounding causing catastrophic environmental damage. In delivering the court’s 2008 decision in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, Justice David Souter recognized the authority of admiralty courts as courts of equity charged with creating maritime common law. Alito did not participate in that decision.
In 2009, Justice Clarence Thomas authored the decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, awarding punitive damages for the willful and wanton failure to pay a Jones Act seaman maintenance and cure benefits. Alito dissented on the basis of Miles v. Apex Marine. Souter took no part in the 1990 decision in Miles, which limited the remedies in the wrongful death of a Jones Act seaman to compensatory damages.
In Miles, the court exposed that when exercising its common-law authority, it should be guided by any relevant legislative enactments for policy guidance in order to achieve uniformity.
Supreme Court analysis
Christopher Batterton was a deck hand who injured his hand due to an alleged defective hatch cover. A suit was filed seeking damages, including a prayer for punitive damages for unseaworthiness. Unseaworthiness is a common-law remedy afforded to crewmembers against the vessel owner. The parties agreed to submit the issues of punitive damages based upon the pleadings and allegations so that the issue before the court was solely legal.
The simple question put forth in Batterton, from the district court to the Supreme Court, was whether a Jones Act seaman could recover punitive damages for a personal injury resulting from an unseaworthy vessel. The simple answer is no. Following Miles, Alito wrote for the court’s majority that admiralty courts should look to legislative enactments like the Jones Act as guidance and only supplement statutory remedies where doing so would achieve uniformity.
The majority in the Batterton decision traced the history of unseaworthiness claims back to 1789 and through the enactment of the Jones Act in the 1920s. In doing so, it also questioned the reasoning behind the 1944 ruling in Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., creating a strict liability versus a due-diligence standard for shipowners in providing a vessel that is reasonably fit for service. Noting the overlap between Jones Act negligence, requiring a safe place to work, and unseaworthiness, the court observed a need for uniform remedies. Under the Jones Act, compensatory damages were legislatively expressed. Thus, allowing punitive damages as a remedy for unseaworthiness would create disparity in the law. The majority decided not to supplement the Jones Act statutory compensatory remedies with punitive damages for derivative unseaworthiness claims.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, suggesting that the majority was incorrect in opining that unseaworthiness was an “exception” to the general maritime rule of allowing punitive damages in general maritime tort claims. This dissent demonstrated a basic difference of opinion within the court with regard to the basis for allowing punitive damages for general maritime law claims and the courts’ role in creating remedies. The majority, in fact, held that maintenance and cure (not unseaworthiness) was an exception to the common-law rule espousing compensatory damages and that the Townsend decision, allowing punitives for maintenance and cure, was a “gloss on Miles rather than a departure from it.” The majority stated that “remedies for negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure have different origins and may on occasion call for application of slightly different principles and procedure.”
The majority clearly held that punitive damages were not traditionally awarded for unseaworthiness claims and that conformity with parallel statutory schemes did not support punitive damages. The rule of Miles, promoting uniformity and statutory intent, prevented the court from creating a “new entitlement” of punitive damages for Jones Act seamen who assert unseaworthiness claims.
Alito was true to his dissent in Townsend to the effect that all courts should look to legislative enactments for policy guidance in order to promote uniformity in the maritime law. It is apparent that the present majority will not be activists in creating “new entitlements” and will promote uniformity under the law consistent with the reasoning of Miles v. Apex.
In the context of the Jones Act, the congressional intent for Jones Act seamen’s remedies was clearly limited to compensatory damages. Since unseaworthiness claims overlap and are derivative of Jones Act claims, punitive damages are not allowed. The maritime law punitive ping-pong game between circuit courts is over, and there is now certainty and uniformity.
Grady Hurley is a partner at Jones Walker LLP in New Orleans. He is the leader of the law firm’s maritime litigation and arbitration team, and co-chairman of the energy, environmental and natural resources industry sector. Since 1979, he has focused on maritime, oil field and energy litigation.