(CN) – Citing centuries of common and maritime law, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an injured sailor’s right to recover punitive damages when an employer refuses to pay for medical care and other expenses.
The case hinged on whether the Jones Act and Miles v. Apex Marine Corp strictly define the damages seamen can recover when suing an employer for “maintenance and cure,” a centuries-old tradition that includes the provision of food, lodging, health care and wages to a sailor injured on the job.
Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that punitive damages have typically been available and awarded in general maritime actions, including some maintenance and cure actions. “We find that nothing in Miles or the Jones Act eliminates that availability,” Thomas wrote.
The plaintiff, Edgar L. Townsend, a crew member on a motor tug, fell on the boat’s steel deck and injured his arm and shoulder. The tugboat’s owner, Atlantic Sounding, refused to pay Townsend maintenance and cure, and filed an action for declaratory relief. Townsend then sued the company for negligence, willful failure to pay maintenance and cure, and wrongful termination under the 1920 Jones Act and general maritime law, along with a counterclaim to the declaratory judgment action.
The district court denied a motion by Atlantic Sounding to dismiss the case, and the 11th Circuit heard the appeal and affirmed, holding that Townsend could seek punitive damages for the withholding of maintenance and cure based on Hines v. J. A. LaPorte, Inc. Because the 11th Circuit’s decision was at odds with other courts of appeals, the high court agreed to hear the case.
In a ruling that in places reads like a history in common law, Clarence Justice Thomas upheld the federal appeals court’s decision. His opinion was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer.
“American courts have … permitted punitive damages awards in appropriate cases since at least 1784,” Thomas wrote. He added that the legal obligation to provide maintenance and cure goes back centuries, and that “the failure of a seaman’s employers to provide him with adequate medical care was the basis for awarding punitive damages in cases decided as early as the 1800s.”
Thomas relied on historical precedent as the primary justification for the ruling: “Because punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because nothing in the Jones Act altered this understanding, such damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available in the appropriate case as a matter of general maritime law,” he wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito called Thomas’ reasoning “flawed.”
Alito said there were few cases in judicial history where punitive damages were awarded for the denial of maintenance and cure.
“Although American courts have entertained maintenance and cure suits since the early 19th century, the court points to only two reported cases … that, as the court carefully puts it, ‘appear to contain at least some punitive element,” he wrote.
“The search for maintenance and cure cases in which punitive damages were awarded yields strikingly slim results,” Alito added. “The cases found are insufficient in number, clarity, and prominence to justify departure from the Miles uniformity principle.”
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Kennedy joined Alito’s dissent.