Punitive Damages Off Limits, Justices Say in Maritime Injury Case

WASHINGTON (CN) — A seaman who blames his injured hand on the Dutra Group’s failure to provide a seaworthy vessel is not entitled to seek punitive damages, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday.

Overturning a ruling by Ninth Circuit, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the lead opinion today joined by his conservative colleagues and Justice Elena Kagan. Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonya Sotomayor joined Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a dissent.

Christopher Batterton’s claim for damages attempted to draw from Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, a 2009 Supreme Court ruling.

“We felt that their decision in Townsend carved a path for punitive damages in unseaworthiness,” Preston Easley, a lawyer for Batterton, said Monday in a phone interview.

Rejecting this argument, however, Alito cited Townsend as one piece of the “overwhelming historical evidence” that suggests claims over seaworthiness are not eligible for punitive damages.

“Allowing punitive damages would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen,” Alito wrote.

Alito also said the relief Batterton seeks could distract from the liability of a ship’s operator, which may be more culpable.

“The rule of Miles — promoting uniformity in maritime law and deference to the policies expressed in the statutes governing maritime law — prevents us from recognizing a new entitlement to punitive damages where none previously existed,” Alito write, citing the 1990 decision Miles v. Apex Marine Corp.

Ginsburg shared the circumstances of Batterton’s injury in her 11-page dissent, noting that a buildup of pressure blew open a hatch crushing his hand.

Batterton says a vent to release pressurized excess air, or even a warning as to the dangers from supervisors, would have prevented his now permanent disability.

Siding with Easley, Ginsburg said the Jones Act provides a cause of action in the event a seaman’s injury is the result of employer negligence.

“Exposure to such damages helps to deter wrongdoing, particularly when malfeasance is ‘hard to detect,’” Ginsburg wrote. “If there is any ‘bizarre disparit[y],’ it is the one the court today creates: Punitive damages are available for willful and wanton breach of the duty to provide maintenance and cure, but not for similarly culpable breaches of the duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.”

While attorney Easley said he was surprised by the ruling, Dutra’s attorney Seth Waxman of WilmerHale said his client is “very gratified” with today’s resolution of the case.

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