Bloomberg Law Insight: Practical Effects from the Supreme Court’s Decision Limiting Punitive Damages for Sailors

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Reproduced with permission. Published August 29, 2019. Copyright 2019 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. 800- 372-1033. For further use, please visit

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24 opinion in Dutra Group v. Batterton (2019), resolved a split among federal appellate courts by concluding that punitive damages are not available in a general maritime law unseaworthiness action brought by a Jones Act seaman.

The starting point for the court’s holding was two of its past decisions:

  • Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), and
  • Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).

Miles did not involve a punitive damage claim; rather, the mother of a seaman murdered by a fellow crewmember filed a wrongful death action. Damages for “loss of society,” considered nonpecuniary damages, were sought.

The trial court held that the vessel was unseaworthy for having an unfit crewmember (the murderer). Damages for loss of society were denied, however, because such relief was not available under the Jones Act, a statute incorporating the Federal Employer Liability Act applicable to railroad workers. See 46 U.S.C § 30104 (statutory cause of action allowing for recovery based on negligence of the seaman’s employer).

In affirming this decision, the Supreme Court in Miles noted that unseaworthiness was a judicially created cause of action. Damages under the Jones Act (per its FELA roots) have long been limited to pecuniary losses. See Miles, 498 U.S. at 32.

In denying recovery for nonpecuniary damages under the general maritime law (i.e., non-statutory) unseaworthiness claim, the court held, “It would be inconsistent with our place in the constitutional scheme were we to sanction more expansive remedies in a judicially created cause of action in which liability is without fault then Congress has allowed in cases of death resulting from negligence.” Miles, 498 U.S. at 32-33.

Fast forward almost 20 years, when another seaman’s lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court. Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend. Edgar Townsend was injured while working aboard the tug Thomas. His employer, owner of the vessel, declined to pay maintenance and cure to Townsend, another remedy available under the general maritime law that obligates a vessel owner to provide food, lodging, and medical services to a seaman injured while serving aboard a vessel. Atlantic Sounding, 557 U.S. at 407-408.

Both the trial court and the appellate court held that Townsend could pursue a claim for punitive damages. Relying on historical precedent that punitive damages are available upon proper showing of culpable conduct, the Supreme Court affirmed the seaman’s ability to seek this species of nonpecuniary damages. Atlantic Sounding, 557 U.S. at 420-21.

Distinction With a Difference

When viewed against this backdrop—a statutory cause of action and its corresponding remedies versus a judicially created counterpart—the court’s decision in Dutra Group is easily understood. Specifically, Miles involved a Jones Act seaman who could pursue a claim under both a statutory cause of action (Jones Act) and the largely judge-made general maritime law (unseaworthiness).

It would create an incongruity, however, to allow damages beyond those envisioned by Congress under the Jones Act in a general maritime law remedy fashioned by the courts. See Dutra Group, 139 S.Ct. at 2284 (“[W]e cannot sanction a novel remedy here unless it is required to maintain uniformity with Congress’ clearly expressed policies.”).

In contrast, the Atlantic Sounding court was addressing a judicially created right under the general maritime law (maintenance and cure). The court did not have the statutory fencing of the Jones Act or other legislative limitation (e.g., Death on the High Seas Act.). It makes sense that the court was free to fashion available remedies for this judicially created cause of action.

There are policy considerations underscoring this decision, as well. Seamen do not have the benefit of state or federal worker’s compensation schemes. Maintenance and cure is a seaman’s right, arising out of his or her contract of employment, for medical care and disability payments (of sorts) for injuries arising at work.

Most federal or state compensation schemes have built-in penalties for the failure of an employer to provide medical care to an injured worker. There should be some analogous mechanism to ensure compliance in the context of a sailor’s on-the-job injury.

Impacts of Decision

A few takeaways are apparent from the Supreme Court’s decision. First, although Atlantic Sounding established that punitive damages are available for willful refusal to provide maintenance and cure, its reach beyond this narrow scope is clearly limited. This will impact the value of an unseaworthiness claim—which is essentially a species of no-fault/strict liability—when filed in conjunction with the Jones Act claim for negligence.

The decision also avoids the creation of what the Supreme Court described as a “bizarre disparity.” Miles was a wrongful death case which clearly limited recovery to compensatory damages. Batterton sustained a serious injury when a hatch blew open and smashed his hand against a bulkhead.

It would be anomalous to allow punitive damages in the case of an injured seaman but not to his/her estate in a death case. See Dutra Group at 2287. Such reasoning is in accord with the off-stated principle that maritime law should be as uniform and as harmonious as generally possible.

Finally, and in a departure from jurisprudence on the point, The Dutra Group v. Batterton decision rejected the historic viewpoint that seaman should be treated as “wards of the court,” to whom special solicitude is shown whenever possible. The Supreme Court held this doctrine, with its paternalistic approach rooted in the nineteenth century, was no longer as relevant: “In light of these changes and the roles now played by the Judiciary and the political branches in protecting sailors, the special solicitude to sailors has only a small role to play in contemporary maritime law.” Dutra Group at 2287.

The contours of the Dutra Group opinion will be fashioned by the lower courts in the years ahead. In the interim, employers have better insight and guidance in assessing their exposure in Jones Act claims based on the apparent takeaways from the Supreme Court’s recent decision.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

John P. Kavanagh Jr. is the co-chair of the Transportation and Maritime Practice Group at Burr & Forman where he works with clients to provide solutions to problems and to avoid potential problems for business interests along the waterfront. John’s experience and close relationships with the U.S. Coast Guard, surveyors, port authorities and repair facilities help facilitate expedited resolutions to the unique and various issues facing maritime clients.

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