Are punitive damages available in personal‑injury suits involving a breach of a general maritime duty?
The Supreme Court will determine whether the Jones Act allows punitive damages to be awarded in a personal‑injury suit involving a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. The Dutra Group contends that Supreme Court precedent supports the proposition that the Jones Act bars punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases because it does so in negligence cases, and they are simply alternative causes of actions for the same injury. The Dutra Group also argues that punitive damages were not historically awarded in pre-Jones Act unseaworthiness cases. Christopher Batterton counters that punitive damages have traditionally been available in general maritime claims at common law and that the Jones Act did alter the remedies available in general maritime suits prior to its enactment. Additionally, Batterton asserts that the Jones Act allows for recovery of punitive damages under certain circumstances. From a policy perspective, this case is important because it has implications on the American maritime industry’s ability to compete with the foreign maritime industry, as allowing recovery for punitive damages could increase the business costs and sales prices.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether punitive damages may be awarded to a Jones Act seaman in a personal‑injury suit alleging a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.
Respondent, Christopher Batterton, worked as a deckhand on a ship owned and managed by the Dutra Group, Petitioner. Batterton v. Dutra Group at 4. In a work accident, pressurized air blew a hatch cover open, crushing Batterton’s left hand and leaving him permanently disabled. Id. Batterton alleges that the hatch cover blew open because there was no mechanism to relieve the pressurized air that was being pumped into a compartment beneath it. Id. Batterton sued the Dutra Group in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, arguing that the lack of such a mechanism made the vessel unseaworthy. See id. As part of his prayer for relief, Batterton sought punitive damages for the vessel’s unseaworthiness. Id. The Dutra Group argued that punitive damages are unavailable for unseaworthiness claims and asked the district court to strike the issue from Batterton’s prayer for relief. See id. The district court denied the request, and the Dutra Group immediately moved for an interlocutory appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to resolve this issue. Id. at 3.
In a previous case, Evich v. Morris, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that punitive damages were available for unseaworthiness claims, such as Batterton’s, distinguishing it from Jones Act claims where punitive damages are not available. Id. at 5. However, the Dutra Group maintained that the Supreme Court of the United States implicitly overruled Evich in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. Id. In Miles, the Supreme Court held that claimants may not recover loss of society damages in general maritime actions for the wrongful death of a seaman or lost future earnings in general maritime survival actions. Id. The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend held that Miles only limited the availability of damages for loss of society and lost future earnings—not for maintenance and cure cases. Id. at 7–8.
By implication, the Ninth Circuit reasoned, Townsend suggests that Miles does not limit the availability of remedies in other claims of general maritime law. Id. at 8. The Ninth Circuit stated that unseaworthiness claims, such as Batterton’s, fall under this umbrella of “general maritime law,” and therefore, there is no reason, under Townsend, to believe that punitive damages are unavailable for an unseaworthiness claim. Id. In conclusion, the Ninth Circuit held that Miles does not overturn Evich and affirmed the district court’s refusal to strike Batterton’s request for punitive damages. Id. at 8.
AVAILABILITY OF PUNITIVE DAMAGES
The Dutra Group argues that the Jones Act bars recovery for punitive damages in personal‑injury cases involving a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.
Brief for Petitioner, The Dutra Group at 15–16. The Dutra Group contends that the Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. supports the proposition that any limits Congress has placed on the recovery of damages in Jones Act negligence cases also applies to cases involving unseaworthiness under the separation of powers and uniformity of maritime law principles. Id. at 15–17. Therefore, the Dutra Group asserts that punitive damages are precluded in cases involving a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel because the Jones Act bars punitive damages for negligence. Id. at 16–17. The Dutra Group also maintains that because Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness claims are simply alternative causes of action for the same injury, allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness cases would create an inconsistency and disrupt the uniformity of maritime law. Id. at 19–20.
Furthermore, the Dutra Group argues that the Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, holding that punitive damages are available in maintenance and cure actions, does not apply here. Id. at 21–23. First, the Dutra Group contends that a maintenance and cure action, unlike an unseaworthiness action, is not an alternative to a Jones Act negligence action. Id. at 22–23 The Dutra Group asserts that unlike the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel and Jones Act negligence, maintenance and cure is not dependent on the negligence of a vessel’s owner and is not restricted to workplace related injuries. Id. at 23. Second, the Dutra Group maintains that the passage of the Jones Act fundamentally changed the nature of damage claims for unseaworthiness, transforming it into strict liability—meanwhile, maintenance and cure was not affected. Id. at 24–26. Finally, the Dutra Group argues that the Court’s decision in Miles cannot be distinguished from the instant case as involving only a claim for wrongful death because Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness actions provide remedies for the same situation and make no distinction between claims for wrongful death and claims for personal injury. Id. at 26–27. The Dutra Group contends that courts have routinely noted that the Federal Employers Liability Act (“FELA”) and the Jones Act do not allow for the recovery of punitive damages—recovery is limited to compensating for loss in both wrongful death and personal‑injury cases. Id. at 28. Therefore, the Dutra Group maintains that the Court’s rationale in Miles applies regardless of whether the plaintiff was injured or killed. Id. at 28–29.
Batterton counters that punitive damages may be awarded for breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. Brief for Respondent, Christopher Batterton (“Batterton”) at 16–17. Specifically, Batterton argues that the Court in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend reasoned that punitive damages have historically been available for general common law maritime claims, and therefore, punitive damages should only be precluded for a specific maritime claim if there is evidence to support the preclusion. Id. Batterton contends that unseaworthiness was a widely recognized cause of action prior to the passage of the Jones Act, and there is no evidence in the history of maritime law that indicates that punitive damages were ever precluded in such actions. Id. at 17–20. Furthermore, Batterton asserts that the Jones Act also does not preclude awarding punitive damages in an action for unseaworthiness. Id. at 20–21. Batterton points out that the Court in Townsend reasoned that Congress intended to preserve pre‑existing remedies for maritime claims when it passed the Jones Act—thus, the Jones Act does not bar the award of punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions when such damages were not barred at common law. Id.
Batterton further argues that the Dutra Group fails to distinguish this case from Townsend. Id. at 21–22. First, Batterton contends that the Dutra Group’s argument that unseaworthiness is unique because it is an alternative cause of action to Jones Act negligence is not persuasive because maintenance and cure can also be viewed as an alternative cause of action to Jones Act negligence. Id. at 22–23. Batterton maintains that Jones Act negligence, maintenance and cure, and seaworthiness all attempt to remedy an injury suffered by a seaman, often depend on similar evidence, and share similar elements of recovery—on any given set of facts, an injured seaman can choose between any of these actions. Id. Second, Batterton asserts that the post-Jones Act transformation of unseaworthiness into a strict liability action does not affect the remedies available under that cause of action. Id. at 23–25. In fact, Batterton argues that maintenance and cure is a strict liability duty and similarly underwent a post-Jones Act transformation, yet punitive damages are available for an aggravated breach of maintenance and cure. Id. Furthermore, Batterton contends that several pre-Jones Act cases awarded punitive damages for unseaworthiness—although these cases do not use the terms unseaworthiness and punitive damages, they deal with negligence resulting from a vessel being unseaworthy and damages being awarded with a punitive element. Id. at 25–29. Lastly, Batterton maintains that the Court’s decision to bar punitive damages in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. does not apply here because Miles dealt with the creation of a new cause of action that did not exist prior to the enactment of the Jones Act—since Congress decided to bar punitive damages by passing the Jones Act, the Court could not grant such damages for a new cause of action created after its enactment. Id. at 30–32. However, Batterton asserts that because the unseaworthiness cause of action existed prior to the Jones Act’s passage, punitive damages are still available. Id.
THE STATUTORY AND COMMON-LAW CONTEXTS
The Dutra Group argues that punitive damages are precluded in unseaworthiness actions regardless of the Supreme Court’s duty to defer to congressional determinations regarding the availability of remedies. Brief for Petitioner at 30. The Dutra Group asserts that while courts awarded punitive damages for certain maritime torts—including the malicious denial of maintenance and cure rights—before the passage of the Jones Act, there is no similar history of punitive damages being awarded in unseaworthiness cases. Id. at 30–31. Thus, the Dutra Group contends that the Jones Act did not alter pre-existing remedies for maritime negligence because there were no punitive damages for unseaworthiness prior to the Jones Act. Id. In addition, the Dutra Group maintains that Congress has affirmatively decided to restrict punitive damages for maritime negligence by passing the Jones Act. Id. Therefore, the Dutra Group contends that both the statutory and common law context surround the passage of the Jones Act and the unseaworthiness cause of action support the position that punitive damages are precluded in the instant case. Id.
Batterton counters that punitive damages are available under the Jones Act and FELA in certain situations. Brief for Respondent at 32–33. Batterton asserts that FELA’s text allows for broad recovery of damages resulting from an injury without limiting what types of damages are available. Id. at 33–34. Thus, Batterton contends that the availability of punitive damages under FELA should be presumed absent congressional intent suggesting otherwise. Id. at 34. Additionally, Batterton maintains that punitive damages were available in common law tort actions prior to the passage of FELA—since FELA did not alter the common law framework, punitive damages are still available under the FELA and the Jones Act. Id. at 34–36. Batterton further asserts that the Court have never precluded punitive damages under FELA for injured plaintiffs. Id. at 37–42. Moreover, Batterton argues that the limit on pecuniary damages under FELA and the Jones Act only applies to wrongful death incidents, and in any event, limiting compensatory damages to those that are pecuniary is not inconsistent with still awarding punitive damages. Id. Therefore, according to Batterton, this limit has no bearing on actions involving injured plaintiffs.
INCREASED COSTS OF DOING BUSINESS
The Dredging Contractors of America and Council for Dredging & Marine Construction Safety (the “Dredging Contractors”), in support of the Dutra Group, argue that allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims would increase shipowners’ costs through “higher damage awards, higher settlements, and potentially higher insurance premiums.” Brief of the Dredging Contractors of America and Council for Dredging & Marine Construction Safety (the "Dredging Contractors"), in Support of Petitioner at 19. The Dredging Contractors claim that shipowners and operators would be forced to spend more time, effort, and money defending against lawsuits brought by injured seamen—punitive damages increase potential liability, and plaintiffs benefit from lesser evidentiary standards. Id. at 20. Thus, the Dredging Contractors assert that this will create higher settlement amounts, forcing shipowners to settle claims at unfairly high amounts instead of litigating each claim in court. Id. The Dredging Contractors also contend that higher settlement amounts will lead to a substantial increase in insurance premiums for shipowners. Id. The Inland River Harbor and Fleeting Coalition (“Coalition”), in support of the Dutra Group, concurs, explaining that seamen would take advantage of the availability of punitive damages by asserting more claims that seek such damages. Brief of the Inland River Harbor and Fleeting Coalition (the “Coalition”), in Support of Petitioner at 27–28. The Coalition maintains that this flood of additional claims would force shipowners to settle even meritless claims because litigating every claim—especially with the unpredictable threat of punitive damages—would be too costly and risky. Id.
The American Association for Justice (“Association”), in support of Batterton, dismisses claims that allowing punitive damages would result in major financial consequences for shipowners as overstated. Brief of American Association for Justice (the “Association”), in Support of Respondent at 7. The Association counters that granting shipowners immunity from punitive damages, in addition to weakening incentives for safety, would not increase costs because shipowners would have less to lose in the event of an injury suit. Id. Furthermore, the Association points to decades of research that demonstrate that judges and juries rarely award punitive damages at all—let alone large and devastating ones that the Dutra Group claims would result. Id. at 9–12. The Association also notes that the feared increase in settlement amounts has historically only happened where there are large class actions or mass tort cases, circumstances that do not apply to the situation here. Id. at 15–16. Finally, the Association emphasizes the safety benefits of allowing punitive damages, such as deterring misconduct and enhancing product safety, thereby decreasing the likelihood of injuries. See Id. at 31–32.
COMPETITIVE DISADVANTAGE AND INCREASED CONSUMER COSTS
The At-Sea Processors Association et al. (“Processors Association”), in support of the Dutra Group, argues that allowing punitive damages would negatively impact the American maritime industry’s ability to compete with foreign maritime operators, as well as make their products more expensive for consumers. Brief of At-Sea Processors Association et al. (the “Processors Association”), in Support of Petitioner at 4–5. American shipowners, the Processors Association contends, would face greater damages liability than their foreign competitors, who are typically immune from punitive damages. Id. at 7–8. The Processors Association maintains that in order to account for this increase in liability exposure, American shipowners would eventually pass these increased costs on to consumers in the form of increased prices for fish and other seafood harvested or shipped on American vessels. See id. at 4–5, 7–8. Thus, the Processors Association asserts that this would ultimately harm the American maritime industry by driving business away from American shipowners and toward foreign competitors. Id. at 8.
The Association counters that fears that allowing punitive damages would put the American maritime industry at a competitive disadvantage are unfounded. Brief of the Association at 7. Specifically, the Association argues that scholarly research over the past four decades has demonstrated that juries do not award punitive damages very often, and the amounts awarded by juries for punitive damages is relatively small. Id. at 9–12. The Association asserts that research has shown that judges behave similarly in awarding punitive damages. Id. Moreover, the Association maintains that research has also demonstrated that the availability of punitive damages does not cause meritless cases to be settled or increase the amount of settlements. Id. at 14–22. Thus, the Association argues that allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases would not put American shipowners at an economic disadvantage, and in the long run, American shipowners would actually have an economic advantage over their international competitors. See id. at 36.
- Mayer Brown, Supreme Court to Decide Whether Punitive Damages May Be Awarded in Connection with Unseaworthiness Claims, JD Supra (Dec. 24, 2018).
- David Murray, Supreme Court Takes On Major Maritime Law Case, The Waterways Journal (Dec. 14, 2018).
- David J. Saltaformaggio, U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Resolve Split in Circuits on Whether Jones Act Seamen Can Recover Punitive Damages for Vessel Unseaworthiness, Lexology (Sept. 17, 2018).