US Supreme Court Affirms Injured Seaman’s Right to Seek Punitive Damages

On Jun 25, 2009, the US Supreme Court, In a narrow 5-4 majority decision authored by one of its perceived judicial conservatives ( Mr. Justice Thomas), handed down  an important decision in the matter of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S._______  (2009)- in the jurisprudentially volatile area of punitive damages under US maritime law.

The narrow issue was whether an injured seaman may recover punitive damages for his employer’s willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. The seaman, who was employed onboard a tug boat, slipped and fell on the deck injuring his shoulder and elbow. The tug owner refused to pay maintenance and cure. The seaman filed the usual injured seafarer’s lawsuit (i.e.: alleging claims sounding in Jones Act negligence; general maritime law unseaworthiness; and maintenance and cure). The employer filed a separate complaint in Federal court seeking a declaration of non-liability for maintenance and cure. The seaman counterclaimed for punitive damages predicated on the employer’s failure to pay maintenance and cure. The two (2) cases were consolidated.

Subsequently, the employer moved to dismiss the punitive damages claim. The district court denied the motion but certified the question for interlocutory appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the District Court that the seaman was entitled to claim punitive damages. There were conflicting decisions on the issue among the circuits so the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The US Supreme Court upheld the seaman’s right to seek punitive damages predicated on the employer’s refusal to provide maintenance and cure. The Court rejected arguments that the punitive damages claim for was precluded by its earlier decision in Miles v, Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990) in conjunction with the Congressional judgment expressed in the enactment of the 1920 Jones Act. In relevant part Miles had held that, though the general maritime law recognized a wrongful death cause of action for the death of a seaman, the damages recoverable could not include items for loss of society and future earnings that were unavailable under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act statutory causes of action. In this case the Court holds that “…unlike the facts presented by Miles, the Jones Act does not address maintenance and cure or its remedies. It is therefore possible to adhere to the traditional understanding of maritime actions and remedies without abridging or violating the Jones Act. “The availability of punitive damages for maintenance and cure actions is entirely faithful to these “general principles of maritime tort law” and no statute casts doubt on their availability under general maritime law”. The Court also rejected the contention that the Jones Act replaced the common law remedies available to seamen for maintenance and cure, and upholds seaman’s rights to use in this regard both, statutory and general maritime law remedies, though these may be overlapping.

The Court further noted that American jurisprudence has permitted punitive damages ever since the colonial era, indeed before the ratification of the US Constitution. Punitive damages remained a feature of U.S. common law at least since 1784 and have been part of the (judge-made) general maritime law since the 1800’s. There is no question then that a seaman is entitled to pursue punitive damages for the denial of his maintenance and cure rights “unless Congress has enacted legislation departing from this common-law understanding”. The purpose of the Jones Act is remedial in nature, and meant to augment the rights of seamen, not to decrease them. “Limiting recovery for maintenance and cure to whatever is permitted by the Jones Act would give greater pre-emptive effect to the Act than is required by its text, Miles, or any of [the]  Court’s other decisions interpreting the statute..”

This case is part of the wider ongoing debate over the availability of punitive damages under the general maritime law of the United States and the effect that Acts of Congress are thought to have in this area. One view is that where Congress has acted, related legal issues are also governed by a form of indirect preemption. This is, in effect, at the core of the dissenting opinion authored by Mr. Justice Alito, which was joined by the Chief Justice and Associate Justices Scalia and Kennedy. However, the majority decision notes that Congress has had occasion to actually enact statutory restrictions expressly addressing general maritime law claims in certain instances and, accordingly, knows how to restrict the traditional remedy of maintenance and cure when it wants to. Thus, the availability of punitive damages under the General Maritime Law of the United States, whether in maintenance and cure actions or in other maritime claims areas,  should not be considered restricted under Congressional enactment,  unless the enactment restricts the availability expressly and specifically.

To read the US Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, please click here.

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