Admiralty Professor Haycraft Reports from the Courthouse Steps on the Dutra v. Batterton Supreme Court ArgumentThis morning I attended oral argument at the United States Supreme Court in the maritime case of Dutra Group v. Batterton.[1]  The question in the case is whether a Jones Act seaman may recover punitive damages on an unseaworthiness claim.  Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman argued for Petitioner Dutra Group and David Frederick argued for Respondent Christopher Batterton.

Waxman began his argument by explaining that Miles v. Apex set boundaries constraining what common law admiralty courts can do when Congress has legislated as it has in the Jones Act.  He was quickly interrupted by Justice Sotomayor who noted that the Jones Act was enacted to supplement, not restrict, remedies available to a seaman.  Justices Ginsberg and Kagan also pressed Waxman, with Kagan questioning why unseaworthiness doctrine has evolved over the past few decades, becoming more favorable to the seaman, if the Jones Act in 1920 constrained the common law admiralty courts?

But Frederick also met pointed questions, the most reiterated one being that there is a conspicuous absence of punitive damages in the unseaworthiness context.  Justice Ginsberg specifically noted that such cases were slim to none, unlike the situation in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, when punitive damages were allowed by the Court for egregious violations of the maintenance and cure obligation.

In the end, most of the justices had probing questions for both parties, making it quite unclear what the outcome will be.  The author of the key Townsend opinion, Justice Thomas, had no questions for either side.

[1] I submitted an amicus curiae brief for the Waterways Council, Inc., in support of Petitioner Dutra Group.

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