In a long-anticipated decision, the United States Supreme Court held in a 6-3 opinion penned by Justice Alito that punitive damages are not recoverable when tethered to a seaman’s unseaworthiness claim against a vessel owner: “We hold that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness.” Justice Alito further noted that “[h]ere, because there is no historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions, and in order to promote uniformity with the way courts have applied parallel statutory causes of action, we hold that punitive damages remain unavailable in unseaworthiness actions.”
This decision is anomalous on several grounds. First, it is surprising that Justice Thomas sided with the Batterton majority in the wake of his well-reasoned opinion in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), which allowed recovery of punitive damages for a shipowner’s willful and wanton refusal to provide medical care (maintenance and cure) to an injured seaman. Maintenance and cure is a remedy which, similar to the warranty of seaworthiness, has its genesis in the general maritime law. Despite Justice Thomas’s invocation in Atlantic Sounding of the “general rule that punitive damages were available at common law [and] extended to claims arising under federal maritime law,” he seemingly reversed course in Batterton, silently adopting the reasoning of Justice Alito’s dissent in Atlantic Sounding that the “strikingly slim” historical evidence of punitive damages in maritime cases counseled against providing the remedy.
Secondly, an equally divided Supreme Court allowed a punitive damages award to stand under maritime law in favor of commercial fishermen and native Alaskans economically damaged after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, (Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471 (2008)), thus affording greater maritime remedies to those individuals over injured seamen. See alsoBMW of North America v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996) (BMW purchaser allowed punitive damages under state law). Forty-seven of the United States generally allow punitive damages in claims brought pursuant to their State’s law.
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, given that maritime work (and in particular commercial fishing) has repeatedly been listed as the most (or second-most) dangerous job in America. See, e.g., https://time.com/5074471/most-dangerous-jobs/., withholding the remedy to those who go down to sea undoubtedly contributes to lax shipboard safety which allows this lofty yet preventable ranking.
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