Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in this landmark case concerning punitive damages. The six justices in the majority opinion reversed the Ninth Circuit and resolved a circuit split on this issue. The question presented was whether punitive damages may be awarded to a Jones Act seaman in a personal injury suit alleging a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor.
The plaintiff, a Jones Act seaman employed by Dutra Group, was injured on the defendant’s dredge vessel on the West Coast. A hatch blew open and crushed his hand. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to strike the punitive damages claim; the Ninth Circuit affirmed. This decision set up a split in the circuits, because three years earlier the en banc Fifth Circuit in McBride v. Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) held that punitive damages were not available under the rationale of an earlier Supreme Court case, Miles v. Apex Marine, 498 U.S. 19 (1990).
Justice Alito’s opinion focused on an historical approach that found an absence of punitive damage awards in unseaworthiness cases. Accordingly, the opinion notes that once the Jones Act was passed by Congress in 1920, legislative remedial schemes for seamen should be the watchword for courts sitting in admiralty. The Jones Act negligence action allows only compensatory damages; its twin, general maritime law’s unseaworthiness cause of action, should not overstep legislative limitations. Thus, the uniformity principle expressed in Miles prevailed with its admonition that courts should not exceed legislative limits. The opinion distinguishes the Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend case, in which a 5-4 majority opinion (written by Justice Thomas) ruled that punitive damages were available to a Jones Act seaman whose employer arbitrarily and capriciously fails to pay the injured or ill seaman maintenance and cure. In contrast to unseaworthiness, there was an historical record of punitive damage awards in the maintenance and cure context. Finally, Justice Alito noted that policy considerations disfavor allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness, because many competitor shipping nations do not have punitive damages. Affirmance of the Ninth Circuit view would harm American shipping interests.
In dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that Atlantic Sounding controlled, because there was a long history of punitive damages awards as part of the general maritime law, albeit a paucity in the specific context of unseaworthiness. While the Jones Act provided a new negligence cause of action, Congress did not curtail preexisting remedies, including punitive damages. Statutory and historical analysis contains “not a hint” that the Jones Act limited seamen’s remedies already in place. In her policy analysis, Justice Ginsburg countered that punitive damages’ availability in maintenance and cure actions has not created a “tidal wave” of such actions; instead, she writes, punitive damages for wanton and willful creation of an unseaworthy condition in a vessel will deter such conduct.
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