On June 24, 2019, the United States Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated decision in Dutra Group v. Batterton, No. 18-266 (June 24, 2019). The decision settles and resolves a longstanding circuit split on whether a seaman has the right to recover punitive damages under a claim of unseaworthiness. In a 6-3 ruling, the Court held that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. See Id at 2.

In Dutra, the Plaintiff, Christopher Batterton (“Batterton”) filed a personal injury action alleging that, while working on a scow near Newport Beach, California which was owned by Dutra Group, he was injured when his hand was caught between a bulkhead and a hatch that blew open as a result of unventilated air accumulating and pressurizing within the component. Id at 9. Batterton sued Dutra and asserted a variety of claims, including negligence, unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and unearned wages. Id. He sought to recover general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to strike Batterton’s claim for punitive damages, arguing that they are not available on claims for unseaworthiness. Id. The District Court denied Dutra’s motion, 2014 WL 12538172 (CD Cal., Dec. 15, 2014), but agreed to certify an interlocutory appeal on the question, 2015 WL 13752889 (CD Cal., Feb. 6, 2015). Id. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed and held that punitive damages are available for seaworthiness. Dutra Group v. Batterton, 880 F. 3d 1089, 1096 (CA9 2018). The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the division between the circuits.

In the opinion written by Justice Alito, the Court examined the history of unseaworthiness claims and reconciled Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 27 (1990) and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 425 (2009). Justice Alito who had written the dissent in Atlantic Sounding, the 2009 decision making punitive damages available to a seaman for an employer’s willful and wanton disregard of its obligation to pay maintenance and cure, stated that “maritime law is no longer solely the province of the Federal Judiciary [as] Congress and the States have legislated extensively in these areas”, [and, therefore]; when exercising its inherent common-law authority, the Court looks primarily to these legislative enactments for policy guidance. Dutra at 1 citing Miles, 498 U.S. at 27. However, it may depart from these in discrete instances based on long-established history and only cautiously in light of Congress’ persistent pursuit of uniformity in the exercise of admiralty jurisdiction. Dutra at 1-2.

Further, the Court noted that this case is governed by its decisions in Miles and Atlantic Sounding and made a three-prong analysis in order to determine whether punitive damages should be awarded to claims of unseaworthiness: 1) whether punitive damages have traditionally been awarded for claims of unseaworthiness 2) whether conformity with parallel statutory schemes would require punitive damages; and 3) whether policy grounds would compelled the Court to allow punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims.

Regarding the first prong, the Court conducted a historical analysis of the claim of unseaworthiness and damages awarded for the same and concluded that the overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims. Dutra at 11. The Court then considered the second prong and considered the remedies typically recognized for Jones Act claims. As way of background, the Jones Act was passed by Congress in 1920 and regulates maritime liability. Rather than create a new structure of substantive rights, the Jones Act incorporated the rights provided to railway workers under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), 45 U. S. C. §51 et seq. 46 U. S. C. §30104. It recognized claims for maintenance and cure and unseaworthiness. The Court   noted that, throughout the years Federal Courts of Appeals have unanimously held that punitive damages are not available under FELA. See Miller v. American President Lines, Ltd., 989 F. 2d 1450, 1457 (CA6 1993); Wildman v. Burlington No. R. Co., 825 F. 2d 1392, 1395 (CA9 1987); Kozar v. Chesapeake & Ohio R. Co., 449 F. 2d 1238, 1243 (CA6 1971). Further, in Miles, the Court held that the Jones Act “limits recovery to pecuniary loss.” Miles, 498 U.S., at 32. Therefore, it determined that in order to promote uniformity with the way courts have applied parallel statutory causes of action, punitive damages remain unavailable in unseaworthiness claims. See Dutra at 15. Finally, the Court analyzed the third prong and considered whether policy grounds warranted punitive damages for claims of unseaworthiness. It reasoned policy considerations disapprove punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims because it would create bizarre disparities in the law. Id at 17.

Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined in a dissent penned by Justice Ginsburg, which stated that “if there is “bizarre disparit[y],” it is the one the Court [created in this decision]: punitive damages are available for willful and wanton breach of the duty to provide maintenance and cure, but not for similarly culpable breaches of the duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.” (Dissenting opinion at 11).The dissent questions the majority’s goal of promoting uniformity in maritime law on the basis that punitive damages are available in maintenance and cure cases. Additionally, the majority decision ignores the notion of seaman as wards of admiralty in need protection and instead finds this paternalistic doctrine obsolete. “While sailors today face hardships not encountered by those who work on land, neither are they as isolated nor as depending on the master as their predecessors from the age of sail. In light of these changes and the role 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.” See Dutra at 18.This decision comes after a radical change in the United States Supreme Court’s makeup, with the addition of four (4) new justices on the Court, two of which were nominated by President Trump.

The majority’s decision is favorable for vessel owners and makes the most practical sense. For instance, regulations and requirements for owners and operators to follow today makes the likelihood of a vessel sailing in an unseaworthy condition less prevalent. For example, classification societies establish and maintain technical standards for the construction and operation of commercial vessels. They certify that a vessel is in compliance with the classification society rules. If a vessel is not in compliance it will not be certified by class. This ultimately will have an effect on the vessel owner obtaining hull and machinery insurance. Additionally, allowing a seaman to obtain punitive damages for an unseaworthy vessel would put extreme pressure on vessel owners and operators, and arguably affect maritime commerce as most insurance policies exclude punitive damages from coverage. Lastly, unseaworthiness is already a doctrine of strict liability, allowing a seaman to sue without having to prove fault, which thereby defeats the point of allowing punitive damages in such cases.

This blog was provided by the MG+M Maritime Practice Group. Contributors include practice group chair, Raul Chacon, and attorneys Matthew Valcourt, Danielle Gauer and Stephanie Selman.

MG+M’s Marine Practice Group provides representative coverage on a national scale. With offices located near all major US bodies of water, MGM offers efficient and effective national representation on all marine related matters. If you have any questions please contact Raul Chacon at rchacon@mgmlaw.com.