US Supreme Court Resolves Split Among Circuits: No Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness Claims

Legal Note Update:

In June 2019, the US Supreme Court decided Dutra Group v. Batterson, holding that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages for claims of unseaworthiness. The holding resolves a split among the circuits and overrules a 2017 decision by the Supreme Court of Washington which held that a Jones Act seaman could recover punitive damages under the claim.

Generally, unseaworthiness claims are brought against the owner of a vessel under general maritime law. The action allows an injured seaman to bring claims against the owner of a vessel for injuries related to its condition. A vessel may be unseaworthy if its parts, equipment, or crew are unfit for its intended purpose. The basis for an unseaworthiness may be as simple as slipping or tripping hazards on the vessel or extend beyond the physical elements of the vessel to operating deficiencies such as inadequately trained or experienced crew. Unlike claims brought under the Jones Act, which require a showing of negligence, under the unseaworthiness doctrine, the owner of a vessel has an absolute, non-delegable duty to provide a seaworthy vessel with respect to its employees and crewmen. The shipowner’s negligence or knowledge of the condition is irrelevant.

Under the Washington Supreme Court decision as well as other circuit court precedent, punitive damages were recoverable against a shipowner for their gross and willful conduct disregard for the seaworthiness of their vessel. But Dutra now bars this possibility. The Supreme Court decision standardizes limitations on punitive damage awards for general maritime and Jones Act claims. The decision accords with precedent accords with Fifth Circuit, bringing damages model for these claims into congruence with those already applied here.

Justice Alito, who authored the Dutra majority opinion, rested the decision on “overwhelming historical evidence” and uniformity considerations.

Maritime law is complex. If you or a loved has been seriously injured or killed while working offshore, contact an attorney experienced and proven in handling maritime waters. Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner is the oldest personal injury law firm in Texas. Our attorneys have handed many maritime injury claims. Contact us today by calling 713-396-3964 or 1-800-594-4884 for a free consultation.