Supreme Court Takes On Major Maritime Law Case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on December 7 to hear a maritime law case that could have important financial implications for marine companies. The case, Batterton v. Dutra Group, raises the question of whether or not punitive damages are available to Jones Act seamen under general maritime law for a claim of unseaworthiness.

The Supreme Court took the case because two different federal circuits, the Fifth and Ninth, have given different answers to that question.

The plaintiff, Christopher Batterton, was a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by the Dutra Group, based in San Francisco Bay.

While Batterton was working on a Dutra vessel in navigable waters, a hatch cover blew open and crushed his left hand. Batterton sued, arguing that the compartment below the hatch cover lacked an exhaust mechanism to relieve air pressure when it got too high, that therefore the vessel was unseaworthy, and that the unseaworthiness caused his injury and subsequent disability.

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The stakes are high. If the Supreme Court decides that punitive damages are available in unseaworthiness claims, it would likely greatly affect marine companies’ legal exposure and insurance requirements.

The Supreme Court must now sift through various court decisions on punitive damages for injury, death and “loss of society” for survivors under general maritime law and the Jones Act.