Last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dutra v. Batterton (June 24) is one of the most consequential maritime law rulings in recent years. It was important for its reversal of a conflict between two judicial circuits regarding whether or not punitive damages were available to seamen in claims of unseaworthiness.
That conflict in interpretation between the Ninth and Fifth circuits was fostered by the Supreme Court itself, in two rulings in the 1940s that expanded claims of unseaworthiness into an “absolute duty” of the vessel owner independent of due diligence, as Justice Samuel Alito explained in his majority opinion. That novel claim attracted the interest of plaintiff attorneys and created uncertainty about whether or not punitive damages were available in a claim for unseaworthiness.
Like common law, maritime law developed for hundreds of years, predating the Constitution. When the United States was founded as a maritime nation, it inherited that body of law, whose interpretation was assigned to the federal courts.
But in Miles v. Apex Marine, the Supreme Court said that even though courts have some leeway to fashion remedies based on the maritime law, they “should look primarily to … legislative enactments for policy guidance” on how to apply maritime law.
That’s the case that Alito said should govern maritime remedies. He wrote, “This court cannot sanction a novel remedy here unless it is required to maintain uniformity with Congress’s clearly expressed policies, particularly those in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act).”
While the Dutra ruling did not completely remove the possibility of punitive damages under maritime law, it left them available only in two very narrow circumstances: in case of a wrongful failure to pay maintenance and cure, and in certain oil spill cases.
In a “maritime client alert” to its members, the law firm Jones Walker pointed out that Dutra has not only made risk easier to calculate for vessel owners, it has also removed some risk altogether.
Writing to members of The American Waterways Operators, Thomas Allegretti, president and CEO, noted that AWO filed an amicus brief in the case last spring. “This decision is an important win for you and for the entire U.S. maritime industry because it prevents courts from awarding nearly unlimited punitive damages in addition to the compensatory damages injured mariners can already receive under the Jones Act,” Allegretti said. “I am confident our voice as the largest segment of the domestic maritime industry had a meaningful impact in the outcome of this case and the nationwide precedent it has now set.”