Courts Rule On Punitive Damages For Seamen

March 12, 2018

The question of whether punitive damages are available for Jones Act seamen was left further unsettled in the federal court system after several recent conflicting court decisions. The rulings mean that Jones Act employers could be liable for millions of dollars in additional liability in some court jurisdictions.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the defendant in the case of Triumph v. Tabingo. In that case, the Washington State Supreme Court found a right to punitive damages in a seamen’s claim of unseaworthiness. (State courts can hear maritime law cases, but can consider only federal maritime law decisions, not state precedents.)

Until 2009, the Jones Act (passed in 1920) was generally held by courts to preclude the awarding of punitive damages to seamen. Injured Jones Act seamen receive payments called maintenance and cure that do not depend on a finding of fault. Maintenance and cure payments descend from long maritime law tradition, and only Jones Act seamen can claim them. In addition, seamen could claim compensatory damages, but traditionally not punitive damages.

That changed in 2009, when the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to punitive damages by ruling (in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend) that prior to the Jones Act, maritime law had many precedents and judgments allowing punitive damages for injured seamen or passengers, and the Jones Act did not necessarily rule these out.

But the Townsend decision left no clear rules about when and how punitive damages could be assessed. Some subsequent cases suggested they could only be claimed in cases where the company deliberately and maliciously refused or delayed maintenance and cure payments.

In another decision, on February 8, the Ninth Circuit ruled in Batterton v. Dutra Group, and following the precedent set in Triumph v. Tabingo, that a right to punitive damages could be found in a claim of unseaworthiness under maritime law. This decision, if allowed to stand, could expand the number of maritime law cases in which punitive damage awards are in play.

The American Waterways Operators has filed briefs in Tabingo and other cases that explain the industry’s opposition to punitive damage awards for maritime injury claims.