No More Punies: Supreme Court Rejects Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness
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No More Punies: Supreme Court Rejects Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness

Key Takeaways:

  • Courts have previously been divided on whether seamen can recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims

  • The Supreme Court settled the uncertainty in Dutra Group v. Batterton

  • Punitive damages are not available under general maritime law for unseaworthiness

The law is well-settled that seamen cannot recover punitive damages under the Jones Act. The law is equally settled that seamen can recover punitive damages for an employer’s willful and wanton failure to provide maintenance and cure benefits as required by the general maritime law. But courts have been divided on the question of whether seamen can recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims. There can be no division on that score anymore. In Dutra Group v. Batterton, the Supreme Court held that plaintiffs may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness.

The plaintiff, Christopher Batterton, allegedly injured his hand when a hatch cover blew open while he was working on a dredge vessel. Batterton asserted a variety of claims against his employer, The Dutra Group, including Jones Act negligence, maintenance and cure, and unseaworthiness. Batterton sought punitive damages in addition to his alleged general damages. The district court refused to dismiss Batterton’s claim for punitive damages for unseaworthiness, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Dutra Group appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

In a 6-3 opinion delivered by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. The court said the “overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness The court dismissed the case law cited by Batterton and said “[t]he lack of punitive damages in traditional maritime law cases is practically dispositive.” The court likewise rejected Batterton’s multiple public policy arguments, holding that “a claim for unseaworthiness serves as a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim” and it would exceed the court’s objectives to give plaintiffs such a “novel remedy” not sanctioned by Congress. According to the court, allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would run contrary to the uniformity principles guiding maritime decisions, considering that punitive damages are not allowed on Jones Act claims.

With the Batterton decision, the Supreme Court settles the uncertainty around the application of punitive damages and clearly limits the recovery of punitive damages in maritime cases to the willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure. A Jones Act seaman cannot recover punitive damages for a Jones Act negligence or unseaworthiness claim.

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